To Clinton and Obama, the obvious question is: What are the big ideas? I don't mean, What are their positions? I read the domestic checklists, nod, and nod again. Between Clinton and Obama, on paper, not much daylight shines through, though Clinton is more sophisticated (on energy and environment) and more universalist (on health care). On working our way out of Iraq, they differ at the margins. But how to evaluate such differences as seem to exist? When Obama talks about a crisis in Social Security, does he mean it? His boilerplate about the Republicans as the party of ideas--is this co-optive tactics or belief? On positions, totting up the apples and oranges as best I can, it's Clinton on points, though not a knockout.
Then, the question of governing method. How a smart person will react in a crisis can't be known--but with whom will they consult? I prefer Obama's Zbigniew Brzezinski and Samantha Power to Clinton's Madeline Albright and Richard Holbrooke. (On domestic matters, which of course aren't strictly domestic, I'm rather tired of Robert Rubin.)
I applaud Obama for saying that he wants to eliminate nuclear weapons from the world, but what will he do to get that done? On global warming, will he face down Big Oil? On health care, Big Pharma? He wins on eloquence, which bodes well to rally public support--if that's what he wants to do. About this, with all his talk about table participants, he's cagey.
Not least, who's more likely to win an election and to spread coattails? On this score, Obama seems the better bet. He doesn't arouse wild, bizarre howls of hatred--not yet, at least. (Still, older white voters may not be ready for his complexion.) The press has a long head start working up its animus against the Clintons--in a single campaign, he's unlikely to catch up with her on its hit list. He polls better among the legion of independents, while she may top out with core Democrats. Where eloquence counts, he can probably mobilize better.
But what unnerves me is the possibility that Obama may look like the likelier winner because he better covers himself in fog precisely to look like the likelier winner. The master of artfulness confronts the mistress of embattlement. So, awaiting further signs, I teeter.
Todd Gitlin is author of The Bulldozer and the Big Tent.
Part one: Randall Kennedy
Part two: Judith Shulevitz
Part three: Erica Jong