Michael Gerson

This will undoubtedly be a change election -- about 77 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, the highest number since the 1995-96 shutdown of the federal government. But unlike many past presidential contests, no Republican incumbent or vice president will appear on the ticket. All the Republican candidates are able to run as fresh faces.

It is Clinton who carries the heaviest burden of the past -- who must defend her years of service as a golden era. She is the most backward-looking candidate of either party -- the closest there is to an incumbent in the 2008 election. This could allow a smart Republican to wear at least a portion of the mantle of change.

Third, the Clintons practice a form of politics without honor. Already Clinton's proxies have attacked Obama as a drug user and maybe a drug dealer, and bemoaned politicians who "shuck and jive." These are code words one would expect to overhear from George Wallace at a cocktail party with Lester Maddox. Robo-calls in Nevada made reference to "Barack Hussein Obama." Clinton accuses Obama of defending a slumlord -- and even, God forbid, of defending Ronald Reagan.

Given the Clintons' cultivation of ruthlessness as a political art, none of this is surprising. Obama is the soaring candidate -- the candidate of idealism and aspiration. Clinton's only hope is to bring him down to earth, then bury him in flying dirt. Clinton prefers a war of attrition -- blow for bloody blow -- because her team is better at the tactics of politics. Unable to inspire, Clinton chooses to destroy.

This may work in the primaries since many Democrats seem to prefer a fighter to a lover. But I suspect these tactics will eventually backfire. African American Democrats cannot be pleased to see Obama cut and bleeding from a thousand distorted attacks. And while Clinton is clearly the best partisan in the race, the country does not seem to be in a partisan mood.

A presidential election between, say, McCain and Obama -- both positive and honorable candidates -- would be better for the country. A race between McCain and Clinton would be better for the Republicans.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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