If you are just tuning into the presidential campaign, you might think it's just another year of deep and bitter division for the Democrats.
There's Hillary Clinton accusing Barack Obama of lying about policy. There's Obama asking John Edwards why he didn't produce more in the Senate. There's Edwards calling Clinton a puppet for high-priced lobbyists. But listen a little more closely and you'll realize that all of this bitter rhetoric is masking something unexpected: agreement.
Consider the noisiest topic of dispute: the ongoing controversy over whether to require that every American obtain health insurance, an idea Hillary Clinton and John Edwards endorse and Barack Obama does not. While it's an important dispute--without such a requirement, millions of additional Americans might end up without coverage--it's really the only area of serious disagreement. All three Democrats say they want universal coverage. And all three Democrats would make insurance more accessible by heavily regulating the private insurance industry, providing financial assistance to people who need help paying for coverage, and then expanding public insurance programs for those people still too poor to afford any policy at all.
The consensus extends beyond health care. When it comes to averting catastrophic global warming, all three candidates have proposed the same essential scheme: They would each create a cap-and-trade system, in which the government would set an overall limit on dangerous emissions, auction off pollution permits, and then allow companies to trade the permits among themselves. When it comes to improving America's schools, all three candidates have pledged to change, but not eliminate, the No Child Left Behind Act--by providing the measure with more money and by changing the system for testing students, so that it more accurately measures progress on a year-to-year basis. Nor is it just the particular proposals that the Democrats have in common. It's the relative priority they seem to give them. While all three have pledged to reduce budget deficits, in part by letting the Bush tax cuts expire, all three have also indicated they won't insist on fully balancing the budget immediately--because such a hasty move, they recognize, might mean giving up on worthy investments or spending proposals.
If you're a Democratic loyalist, you're probably rubbing your eyes. Ideological smackdowns have been a staple of Democratic primaries for decades. There's always been a candidate touting neoliberalism or a brand of centrism to the right of that--from Gary Hart to Al Gore to Bill Clinton to Joe Lieberman-- engaged in lively (and occasionally fierce) discussions with candidates well to their left. This time around, the domestic policies of the leading contenders are bunched in the same spot along the ideological spectrum.
So what has changed? Political necessity, for one thing. Spending the better part of eight years watching Republicans enact a radically conservative agenda has focused Democrats on winning--which necessarily means putting up a united front.
But, more importantly, the domestic policies of the past debates have been settled. In part, the global economy has conspired to create this consensus by creating unignorable facts on the ground. Aside from a few revanchist elements, the left recognizes that it can't pretend to stand athwart globalization screaming "stop"--even as the center recognizes that it can't pretend globalization makes everybody better off. The left has learned to live with work requirements for welfare while the center has learned to live with the remaining fragments of the union movement.
This consensus is also the product of that past ideological bloodshed. The center helped curb the worst political and policy excesses of liberalism, making the world politically safe for Democrats to rally behind universal health care, a program that was considered too ambitious and fraught in recent campaigns. And, while identity politics clearly persists within the Democratic Party, it has also, thankfully, slid into abeyance--a fact that has, somewhat ironically, helped propel Barack Obama's candidacy. Substantive disagreements still remain, of course, but they lack the defining quality that created such huge rifts in the past.
Do we wish the consensus had different contours? Of course. We'd prefer, for instance, a more ambitious education policy that aggressively challenged teachers' unions. (Obama, to his credit, has at least opened the door to merit pay.) But the result is a mostly sensible agenda with real potential to evolve into legislation, should a Democrat win the White House in November and should, say, a few extra Democrats take new seats in the Senate.
If there's a downside, in fact, it's that all the agreement tends to elevate the trivial and the trashy--as it has in the last few weeks, when a surrogate for Clinton began suggesting that Obama's youthful flirtation with illegal drugs made him unelectable. But that is what happens when the candidates agree on as much as they do. That's not the worst thing in the world. No, youthful drug indiscretions shouldn't define this campaign. But broader questions about character, leadership style, and political viability should deeply influence it.
After all, the three front-runners may agree on what the world ought to look like, but they have presented different visions for how to get there. One candidate would manage the political process in Washington, one candidate would wage a populist crusade against it, and one candidate would try simply to transcend it. Reasonable people can disagree about which approach makes the most sense--and who, given their personal qualities, is in the best position to succeed. But that, too, is a fight worth having.
By The Editors