Poetry versus Prose
"You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose."
--Hillary Clinton, Nashua, N.H., Jan. 6.
I will get back to fact checking tomorrow, but first let me share my impressions from four exciting days in New Hampshire. When I heard Hillary Clinton quote Mario Cuomo in a packed sports hall in Nashua on Sunday, I knew instantly that she had captured the essence of the 2008 presidential campaign. The most important distinction in this race, at least at this stage, is not between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. It is between the Poetry Party and the Prose Party.
Barack Obama is the epitome of the poetry candidate. His speeches are short on details and specific policy proposals. But with his rhetoric about "hope" and "change," he soars effortlessly above his plodding, earth-bound rivals. Hillary Clinton is the prose candidate, par excellence. She arrives at meetings armed with long lists of carefully thought-out policies, from improving the Pell grant program to combating autism. While she can hit the high notes on occasion, she fails to stir as much passion as her rival.
It is a similar story on the Republican side. John McCain has honed his stump speech down to two essentials: As president, he will go to war against pork in Washington and will protect America from its foreign enemies. Mitt Romney addresses audiences in front of a billboard listing 13 separate campaign promises, from universal health care to strengthening families. He is not so much a prose candidate as a data candidate.
Poetry candidates talk about hope; prose candidates emphasize experience. Poetry candidates synthesize their message; prose candidates draw up laundry lists. Poetry candidates campaign on a story and a personal narrative; prose candidates campaign on their records. Poetry candidates focus on "tomorrow" rather than "yesterday." With prose candidates, the emphasis is usually the other way around.
Poetry candidates run on charisma. Prose candidates run on competence. Poetry candidates tend to be outsiders, prose candidates insiders. Poetry candidates appeal to the heart, prose candidates to the head.
As I followed the candidates around New Hampshire, I began thinking of them not as Democrats and Republicans, but as representatives of the Poetry party and the Prose party. Here is my list:
|Poetry candidates||Prose candidates|
|Barack Obama||Hillary Clinton|
|John McCain||Mitt Romney|
|Mike Huckabee||Rudy Giuliani|
|John Edwards||Bill Richardson|
As you can see from that list, the Poetry candidates come in a variety of flavors. A Huckabee speech is very different from an Obama speech. Like Obama and McCain, however, Huckabee is a synthesizer. His message consists of two essentials: (1) I am a regular guy, just like you, the voter; (2) I represent Christian values.
To adapt a distinction coined by the English philosopher Isaiah Berlin in his essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox," prose candidates (foxes) know many different things, but they are little things. Poetry candidates (hedgehogs) know one big thing.
This is a particularly interesting election because there are poetry candidates in both parties. In the Democratic Party, Obama has the lion's share of the poetry vote, but Edwards (anti-special interests, fighting to save the middle class) is positioning himself to pick up the change mantle should the front-runner falter. In the Republican Party, the poetry vote is divided between Huckabee and McCain, so anything is possible.
In many American elections, there has not been a top-notch poetry candidate and a top-notch prose candidate. Prose candidates dominated the last two elections, Bush vs. Kerry and Bush vs. Gore. When there is a choice, the poetry candidates tend to do better, particularly at turning points in American history.
|Poetry party||Prose party|
|Bill Clinton||George H.W. Bush|
|John F. Kennedy||Richard Nixon|
You could detect the frustration in Hillary Clinton's voice when she made the poetry/prose distinction in the sports hall in Nashua. She did not mention Obama, but everybody knew whom she was talking about. It is not easy being a prose candidate and see a much less accomplished (in your mind) rival catch fire with the voters. You work so hard, and you are so diligent, but your efforts go unrewarded. This explains that very emotional moment on the campaign trail yesterday in New Hampshire.
"Some of us are ready, and some of us are not. Some of us know what we will do on Day One, and some of us have not really thought that through."
She is right. Life -- and elections -- are so unfair.
| January 8, 2008; 10:53 AM ET
Categories: Barack Obama, Candidate Record, Candidate Watch, History
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