Little separates Clinton, Obama

The Baltimore Sun

In case you missed it, the Democratic presidential primary finally started.

Though former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (more on him in a moment) and a half-dozen other candidates are also running, the race is a two-way battle between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois. With the Iowa caucuses six months away and very little non-fundraising news worth reporting until recently, the race has heated up.

Well, sort of. It's hard to find much in the way of serious policy disagreement between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama. If you drill down far enough into their health care proposals you'll find differences, but the general goal of national coverage is the same.

Even though Mrs. Clinton voted for the October 2002 resolution to authorize the Iraqi war, both are vocal critics of the Bush administration and its war management. On reproductive choice, both tout their 100 percent ratings from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, and their votes against confirming John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court.

Even history links them as potential pathbreakers: Each is attempting to bust through a thick electoral glass ceiling to become either the first female or first black commander in chief. But, historical significance aside, the Clinton-Obama matchup has been snore-worthy.

Despite the national media's incessant but largely failed effort to make the primary more interesting, it took an innocent question posed by a citizen and broadcast during the CNN/YouTube debate in Charleston, S.C., to break things open. The candidates were asked if they would sit down with leaders of some of the least democratic states in the world, including Cuba, Iran and North Korea.

Mr. Obama said he would, but Mrs. Clinton said that, to avoid such a meeting being used as propaganda, as president she wouldn't meet with any of them during the first year of her term.

First-year meetings versus second-year meetings - this is what passes for a controversy in the Democratic primary? What's next: Dueling press conferences over how many months each would wait after inauguration until they'll invite the American Idol winners to the White House lawn for a photo op?

What the YouTube moment actually provided was a chance for each candidate to emphasize his or her main critique of the other.

Mr. Obama's problem is not that he's black, but that he's green, say Hillary and her flacks; Mrs. Clinton may have a great resume, but all her experience didn't prevent her from showing bad judgment by trusting President Bush on the decision to invade Iraq, countered Mr. Obama and his defenders. Both criticisms are overblown.

Mrs. Clinton may be the candidate better prepared to lead from Day One. But Mr. Obama is no more or less prepared to take charge of the Oval Office than any president - her husband included - elected during the past three decades, with the exception of two then-incumbent vice presidents. (The first was the president's father, and the second came up a few thousand Florida chads and five Supreme Court justices short of proving he was the second.)

As for Mrs. Clinton's judgment, she blew the October 2002 vote, probably regrets it, and should have admitted as much a long time ago. But she's done plenty since then to correct that mistake by holding the Pentagon and the White House to account.

The conventional wisdom that Mrs. Clinton can't win the general election but is unbeatable in the primary is wrong on both counts.

Mr. Obama raised more primary dollars than she during the first half of 2007, and if he picks smart fights and invests some of that cash now, he could take the nomination - especially if a significant share of Mr. Edwards' supporters are anybody-but-Hillary people who would eventually hop on the Obama-wagon. And if Mrs. Clinton can continue to run the smart, disciplined campaign she's run so far, by Iowa she could prove to be a tougher general election opponent than Republicans realize.

Given that both have a decent shot of becoming America's 44th president, it's about time they started fighting - really fighting - like they mean it.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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