Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, in their first one-on-one debate, in Los Angeles, were asked at the outset to distinguish themselves from each other.
The question was motivated legitimately by a sense that there is really very little difference between these two liberal Democrats.
Both noted a key difference in their approach to health care. Each wants extensive government regulation. But Clinton wants federal government mandates to force individuals to buy her plan and Obama rejects individual mandates.
This key departure in health policy hints at a far more fundamental difference in the mindsets of these two candidates.
Clinton's big-government liberalism is less rooted in liberal ideals than in the interest-group plantation politics that has defined the Democratic Party of recent years.
These differences in orientation were articulated well back in a famous keynote address given at the 1976 Democratic convention by a black congresswoman from Texas, Barbara Jordan.
Jordan made an appeal for a sense of national community that would derive its authority from citizens. She warned against what she called "the great danger America faces -- that we cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups."
It's evident that if a Democrat gets elected president, we will have our first woman president or our first black president. We're hearing a lot about the gender and race thing from Clinton, but not much about it from Obama.
It was Clinton who introduced race tension into the election. After Obama told a crowd in South Carolina at the time of Martin Luther King's birthday that the slain civil rights leader's crusade was not a "false hope," Clinton stepped in to point out that President Lyndon Johnson (the white patron) got the Civil Rights Act passed.
And then, of course, the senator's surrogate, husband Bill, minimized Obama's landslide victory in South Carolina as a black thing, pointing out that Jesse Jackson also did well there in 1984 and 1988.
When asked at the L.A. debate about immigration hurting blacks by depressing wages, Obama refused to take the bait. He insisted on addressing immigration as a national problem, of concern to all, and independent of the unique problems that are plaguing our inner cities.
Why does the black candidate want to keep race out of the discussion, and why has Clinton made such a point to keep it in?
Dick Morris opened speculation about this, pointing out that Clinton would use her inevitable defeat in South Carolina to her advantage by provoking white backlash with not-so-subtle reminders of race politics and bloc black voting.
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