At first, it seemed very strange for Clinton to attack Obama for once favoring single-payer health care, but to now pretty much favor the same type of health care plan she does. Here is a video her campaign released making this attack:
Why would Candidate X attack Candidate Y not over a policy disagreement, but for once disagreeing with Candidate X and now agreeing with her? It makes sense as a "flip flop" attack on Candidate Y, but in this case it also highlights how both candidates are against single-payer health care. So, at first, I come away from the video thinking that both Clinton and Obama are inadequate on health care.
The more I thought about it, however, the more brilliant this attack seemed. In addition to the flip-flop charge, the attack is actually a well-designed attempt to keep swing liberals from flocking toward Obama. The ad makes the charge that Obama may seem like this great left-wing progressive, but when push comes to shove he doesn't actually champion the more progressive position. It is precisely the same attack the Clinton campaign has been using against Obama on Iraq. Sure, he may have opposed to the war from the start, but what has Obama done to actually end the war that is any different from Clinton? The same thing applies to health care. Obama may sound all left-wing, but liberals should take note that he isn't any different than Clinton. In other words, the Clinton campaign is attacking Obama for being a paper tiger progressive.
Even though the attack implies that she is also a paper-tiger progressive, there is an ingenious logic behind it. It manages to incorporate a "flip flop" charge, a blurring strategy, and a claim that Obama is not a progressive leader all at once. When combined with partisan rhetoric about defeating the Republican machine, it is, effectively, Clinton's pitch to swing liberals, even though it does not paint her as much of a liberal herself. It effectively forces Obama into a position of having to take real leadership on a progressive issue, or to not appear any different than Clinton to progressives. (more in the extended entry)
This brings me to the posts Paul and Matt made last night. Clinton is effectively making the same charge we are making: if Obama wants to win swing liberals in the primary, then he needs to prove he is their champion with something more than words. And really, in the end, she is right. The main reason why many progressive bloggers didn't jump on the Obama bandwagon, or at least why we haven't done much for Obama apart from providing moral support that is generally lacking in activism, is that he hasn't used his time in the Senate to prove his progressive leadership on issues like Iraq and FISA. Had he done so, I have no doubt that his blogosphere support would have turned into something more tangible, like defending him against attacks such as these or generating positive free media buzz on his behalf. For my part, I still hope that Obama wins the nomination, but I'm not excited enough about it to do more than just say I am supporting him, and to sign petitions to help him get on the ballot in Pennsylvania. We want to see progressive leadership in the Senate, and we haven't found that from either Clinton or Obama. Until that happens, we may have preferences, but they are generally intellectual preferences rather than activist ones.
It is a smart appeal to swing liberals from the Clinton campaign. Instead of positioning herself as more liberal than Obama, she is instead arguing that his liberalism hasn't translated into real leadership, and as such is effectively no different than her. If Obama is going to deflect this attack, he needs to prove otherwise. If only there was an opportunity to do that...