Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The "Day Job" Question (Again)

Since this is yet another make-or-break day of Presidential primaries, it is as good a time to remember, as I have observed several times in the past, that both Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have probably been putting all their energy into campaigning at the expense of their "day job," which I like to describe as "doing the people's business." However, I should also observe that David Corn has been considering this issue in his latest post to the Mother Jones MojoBlog. Because he has been a bit more gracious in trying to put this into perspective, I feel it is as good idea to reproduce the entirety of his argument:

In the past few days, as Hillary Clinton has intensified her attacks on Barack Obama prior to the all-important primaries in Ohio and Texas, she has claimed that he has been "missing in action" regarding Afghanistan. Clinton has been trying to make the case that she's better prepped than Obama to be commander-in-chief and more qualified to answer the phone at 3:00 a.m. when crisis strikes. To prove her point, she notes that Obama, who chairs a foreign relations subcommittee covering European matters, has held not one hearing on how to bolster NATO in Afghanistan. This weekend she told reporters on her campaign plane that he has failed in a "responsibility that is directly related to Afghanistan." She urged the journos to grill Obama on this. She said that Afghanistan is "one of the two most important challenges internationally." And she added, "I think he was missing in action...because he was running for president."

It's true that Obama has convened no meetings of the subcommittee, but his camp counters that he became chair of the subcommittee early last year, just as he was starting his presidential campaign. Clinton is technically correct that Obama could have used the subcommittee to conduct oversight of actions and policies related to Afghanistan. But the full foreign relations committee, under the guidance of Senator Joe Biden, has held several hearings on Afghanistan that covered NATO's role there. It's not as if the foreign relations committee did nothing on Afghanistan because Obama did not take on the mission. Also, as happens with many committees, the chair of the full committee reserves the right to handle the big issues him- or herself, and Afghanistan counts as a big issue.

Clinton ought to be careful about hurling stones in this area. As she always tells campaign crowds, she is a member of the Senate armed services committee. In February the committee held two hearings on Afghanistan. On February 8, it focused on appropriations for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was a witness. Eight days later, the committee zeroed in on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, holding a two-part hearing examining recent reports on Afghanistan. Key witnesses included senior officials from the State Department and the Pentagon responsible for the administration's Afghanistan policy.

Clinton attended neither of these hearings. She was on the campaign trail.

Many hearings occur on Capitol Hill without all members--or even a majority of members--of the committee in attendance. In fact, that's more common than not. At plenty of hearings, the committee chair is the only senator or representative present. So it's no surprise or scandal that Clinton was not there for these two Afghanistan hearings. (She did participate in two hearings on Afghanistan held by the committee in the first half of 2007.) But in a campaign season, a spinner could easily say that she's guilty of the same charge she tosses at Obama: putting presidential campaigning ahead of Afghanistan. Her neglect, certainly, is not the same as his: he held no hearings for a year; she attended no hearings this year. But as Clinton throws the kitchen sink at Obama, she ought to make sure nuts and bolts don't bounce back at her.

I think it is important for Corn to point out that "the people's business" is not simply a matter of showing up in the right chambers in Washington at the right time. On the other hand there is also the question of the responsibility that Senate members have to their party leader. The last time I addressed this question myself was in response to an explicit request (plea?) from Harry Reid for both Obama and Clinton to "show up" for some critical votes in February; and I was glad to see Corn cover that particular period in his own analysis.

The real question, of course, is not about "showing up" but about effectively representing one's constituents, since that is the very essence of how the Constitution established the Legislative branch of government. This is not an easy question to answer: It's not as if you can data-mine the Congressional Record for relevant "facts" about Obama and Clinton, respectively, and then grind through each of those fact collections with a mathematical formula that will serve as a "value function" for each candidate. What is most vexing about the campaign process, however, is how little of all that talk dwells directly on why Obama and Clinton each think they have been the best possible representative, without even resorting to some kind of I-represent-my-constituents-better-that-you-do-yours pissing contest. This may be annoying, but it is not surprising. This campaign has not been made by what these two candidates have done to establish their respective values but by the way in which the media has decided to cover it as a "battle royal" (to draw upon the title of the first chapter of The Invisible Man). Thus, it is probably the case that neither Obama nor Clinton intended to "warp their priorities" as a result of deciding to vie for their party's nomination; but the influence of the media is so great that they have allowed their priorities to be so warped. What, then, does that say about the capacity that either of them have for leadership?

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