Of all the misinformation about the Democratic campaign, none is so dangerous as the notion that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are indistinguishable.
Of course their differences on policy are slight. They are both Democrats. Their common contrast with John McCain is bound to overwhelm any divergence between them.
But they are worlds apart in character. They have different personalities, differing personal preferences, divergent core values, and disparate approaches to politics and governance.
Hillary’s approach tends toward the imperial and secretive. Her 1993 health care proposal failed in part because of mandates on small business. It also failed because she developed her plan in secret, freezing out even sympathetic members of her own party. Now she wants to do a similar thing again: impose mandates on individuals. Her approach to health care is “we have ways of making you healthy.”
In contrast, Obama’s approach to health care is modest, non-imperial, open and participatory. His cautious plan relies primarily on subsidies for people who can’t afford care. Unlike Hillary’s mandates—which call conservatives and libertarians out to fight—Obama’s proposal will engender no more opposition than the usual resistance to “liberal” spending. As for openness, Obama wants to put health-care discussions on C-Span, so that we, the people, can follow them, participate, and buy into whatever plan emerges.
Similar differences appear in foreign policy, in particular on Pakistan. Hillary ridiculed Obama’s open plea to go after bin Laden there as “naïve.” She made clear that she wants foreign problems kept secret and resolved by experts behind closed doors. Isn’t that how we got into Iraq?
In contrast, Obama’s approach to Pakistan was as open and participatory as it could be. Of course specific military tactics, manner and means must be secret. But his terrorism speech, delivered nearly half a year ago, made three vital points. First, it redirected the nation’s attention from irrelevancies like Iraq back to our single most dangerous foreign threat. Second, it provided a comprehensive plan to fight Al Qaeda on every front: military, economic, political, and ideological. Third, it reminded us that the fight with Islamic terrorism is at its core an ideological battle, which has to be waged in the open.
As for Obama’s “naïve” plan to strike Al Qaeda Central militarily, it turned out to be no more than official U.S. policy. We learned that a month ago, when a U.S. missile killed a high-ranking Al Qaeda commandant.
Nowhere do Clinton and Obama diverge in character more starkly than in addressing an age-old question: do ends justify means?
Throughout her campaign, Hillary’s actions have answered that question repeatedly. Her answer has always been “yes.” Even conventional wisdom recognizes that she and Bill will do anything to win.
For half a century, Democrats’ credo has been racial harmony and ethnic peace—articles of deep faith and (on occasion) electoral success. Yet nothing is so sacred as to withstand the needs of the moment in the Clinton campaign. Not only have Hillary and Bill tried to divide white from black and Latino from black. Four days ago, in Cleveland, she tried to turn Jews against Obama. Her hair splitting was so clumsy that it backfired, but she tried anyway, leaving Jews like me disgusted and revulsed.
As Barack Obama repeatedly reminds us, he is not perfect. But I cannot recall a single time in this campaign (or in his political career) when he has sought to score political points by dividing people on lines of race, religion, ethnicity, or gender. He is the product of a racially mixed marriage and an upbringing in Hawaii, arguably our most racially inclusive state. He was raised by a single, white mother, who made him rise at 4:00 a.m. to study. For him, unity and harmony are not just campaign slogans; they are literally part of his DNA.
Our nation’s motto is “e pluribus unum—from many, one.” Protestants are already a minority of our people. Soon pure Caucasians will be as well. If our experiment in pluralism is to succeed, unifying us across racial, ethnic, and religious lines must be job one. To jeopardize that unity to win an election reflects not just poor character, but a fundamental failure to understand who we are as a people, where we have been, and where we must go.
Treachery to our nation’s core values lies in conventional wisdom. If the candidates are truly indistinguishable, then it’s OK to vote your identity. In particular, it’s OK to vote for Hillary because you want a woman in the White House. Thus does conventional wisdom endorse gender politics.
But conventional wisdom is, in Mark Twain’s famous words, “greatly exaggerated.”
As columnist Maureen Dowd has pointed out, stereotypical gender roles don’t apply to Obama and Clinton. It is Hillary who has the “male” character. She is imperial, commanding, hubristic, secretive, reluctant to acknowledge responsibility for mistakes, and willing to use any means to achieve an end. Obama has the virtues that stereotypes assign to females: openness, dialogue, cooperation, harmony, caution, prudence and empathy.
It would be irony indeed if women put a woman in the White House only to suffer a leader with two X chromosomes but many of the most undesirable character traits stereotypically ascribed to males.