Hillary Clinton is getting in lots of trouble for some recent comments, but I suspect that while her message is politically doomed, there’s some truth to it.

Some background: At the debate, Clinton said that candidates shouldn’t be creating "false hopes" among the American people. After the debate, Obama commented that that was like MLK, Jr., mounting the steps of the capitol and saying, "sorry guys, false hope. The dream will die." Then, today, in an interview, Clinton responded:

I would, and I would point to the fact that that Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the President before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became a real in peoples lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it, and actually got it accomplished.

Now, that’s politically tin-eared, no doubt a product of exhaustion. MLK’s a secular god, and you just don’t mess with his legacy. You certainly don’t imply that LBJ deserves more credit for civil rights advances!

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Here’s what I take her intended point to be: Someone like MLK inspires and generates a social movement, social pressure. But it takes a savvy politician like LBJ (not Obama JFK) to twist arms, play the game, and translate the social pressure into legislation. An MLK without an LBJ is just as impotent as an LBJ without an MLK.

That’s her electoral message: she’ll be LBJ. She’s work hard, and work savvy, to accomplish whatever is possible in the current social and political environment. "I’ll get what’s possible done" is not exactly inspiring, but it’s honest in its way.

What Obama and Edwards seem to be promising is to be both MLK Jr. and LBJ — to use the power of the pulpit (Edwards) and inspiring rhetoric (Obama) to create the social movements to which they would then respond by getting good legislation passed. This is effectively how they promise to overcome special interests, by marshaling a wave of public pressure. "I’ll fundamentally change what’s possible."

Now, obviously that’s a more attractive prospect. But so is a pony. I wonder, do we have any precedent for a president playing a significant role not just in tapping but in creating a social movement that drives politicians to action? Are presidents really social change agents like that, to the extent that they can marshal enough public support to overwhelm special interests? Do we have reason to believe something like that is possible within the current constraints of American politics?

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My inclination is to think that its up to civil society groups and individuals to do the movement building. Politicians can work with what they get, but they can’t create a social movement just by force of will.

I hardly need to point out how relevant these considerations are to the climate fight. Thoughts?

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