(This is The State editorial board’s Democratic presidential primary endorsement, which initially appeared online on 1/22/08, and in the paper 1/23/08. Here is a column that went with it, and here is a video explaining it.)
THE DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY in South Carolina this year offers voters an unusual choice. Earlier votes
have winnowed out the most experienced candidates, leaving a field with fewer accomplishments and differences on policy, but including two candidates who come with the promise to make history just because of who they are.
Looking at the remaining field: Rep. Dennis Kucinich offers a bold plan on health care, but his platform is an odd fit for us and for many in South Carolina. John Edwards has morphed away from the optimist who won South Carolina in 2004. The candidate who stayed mostly above the fray four years ago is angry now, and pushing hard to turn working-class angst into political opportunity. He also has tried to one-up the other top Democrats with the least prudent plan for withdrawing from Iraq.
On positions from Iraq to health care, the policy differences between Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama are minute. Much of the debate between them has involved making these molehills look mountainous or clashing over who-shifted-when.
The one most significant difference between them can be found in how they would approach the presidency – and how the nation might respond.
Hillary Clinton has been a policy wonk most of her life, a trait she has carried into the U.S. Senate. As her debate performances have shown, she has intelligence and a deep understanding of many issues. Her efforts in New York focused first on learning her adopted state’s issues in detail, and pursuing legislation that would not necessarily grab headlines.
But we also have a good idea what a Clinton presidency would look like. The restoration of the Clintons to the White House would trigger a new wave of all-out political warfare. That is not all Bill and Hillary’s fault – but it exists, whomever you blame, and cannot be ignored. Hillary Clinton doesn’t pretend that it won’t happen; she simply vows to persevere, in the hope that her side can win. Indeed, the Clintons’ joint career in public life seems oriented toward securing victory and personal vindication.
Sen. Obama’s campaign is an argument for a more unifying style of leadership. In a time of great partisanship, he is careful to talk about winning over independents and even Republicans. He is harsh on the failures of the current administration – and most of that critique well-deserved. But he doesn’t use his considerable rhetorical gifts to demonize Republicans. He’s not neglecting his core values; he defends his progressive vision with vigorous integrity. But for him, American unity – transcending party – is a core value in itself.
Can such unity be restored, in this poisonous political culture? Not unless that is a nominee’s goal from the outset. It will be a difficult challenge for any candidate; but we wait in the hope that someone really will try. There is no other hope for rescuing our republic from the mire.
Sen. Obama would also have the best chance to repair the damage to America’s global reputation. A leader with his biography – including his roots in Africa and his years spent growing up overseas – could transform the world’s view of America. He would seize that opportunity.
He would close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, which has damaged America’s moral standing, and strive to rebuild many diplomatic relationships.
Despite America’s bitter partisan divide, all sides should agree on this: In such an environment, little gets done. Congress has been largely useless under both Republican and Democratic leadership. Setting aside the ideological conflict for conflict’s sake to get anything worthwhile done has fallen severely out of fashion.
And America certainly has things to get done.
From terrorism and climate change to runaway federal entitlement spending, there are big challenges to be faced. Sen. Obama is the only Democrat who plausibly can say that he wants to work with Americans across the political spectrum to address such subjects – and he has the integrity and the skills of persuasion that make him the best-qualified among the remaining Democratic hopefuls to address these challenges.
He would be a groundbreaking nominee. More to the point, he makes a solid case that he is ready to lead the whole country. We see Sen. Barack Obama as the best choice in Saturday’s Democratic primary.