Elections can be about policy, personality or identity. The race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is surely not about policy. The differences between the two are microscopic.
It did not start out that way. Last year, when Hillary was headed toward a coronation, she deliberately ran to the center. She took more moderate views on Iraq, for example, and voted to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.
When she began taking heat for those positions from the other candidates and the Democratic Party's activist core, and as her early lead began to erode, she quickly tacked left and found herself inhabiting precisely the same ideological space as Obama.
With no substantive policy differences left, the Obama-Clinton campaign was reduced to personality and identity. Not advantageous ground for Hillary. In a personality contest with the charismatic young phenom, she loses in a landslide.
What to do? First, adjust your own persona. Hence that New Hampshire tear and an occasional strategic show of vulnerability to soften her image. It worked for a while, but personality remakes are simply too difficult to pull off for someone as ingrained in the national consciousness as Clinton.
If you cannot successfully pretty yourself, dirty the other guy. Hence the relentless attacks designed to redefine Obama and take him down to the level of ordinary mortals, i.e., Hillary's. Thus the contrived shock on the part of the Clinton campaign that an Obama economic adviser would tell the Canadians not to pay too much attention to Obama's anti-NAFTA populism or that Samantha Power would tell the BBC not to pay too much attention to Obama's current withdrawal plans for Iraq.
The attack line writes itself: Says one thing and means another. So much for the man of new politics. Just an ordinary politician like Hillary.
Power, the maladroit Obama foreign policy adviser, is caught calling Hillary a "monster." A resignation demand nicely calls attention to the fact that the Obama campaign surprise! hurls invective. And a strategic mention of Tony Rezko, the Chicago fixer who was once Obama's patron, nicely attaches to Obama a whiff of corruption by association.
These attacks have a cumulative effect. Obama mania is beginning to wear off. Charisma is intrinsically transient. But Hillary's attacks have succeeded in hastening its dissipation.
So if there are no policy issues between them and the personality differences have been whittled down, what's left? Identity. Race, age and gender. Is this campaign about anything else?
Nationally, the older white woman Clinton carries the senior vote, the white vote and the women's vote. The younger black man Obama carries the youth vote, the black vote and the male vote. This was perhaps inevitable in the first campaign in which a woman and an African American have a serious chance at the presidency. But it received a significant gravity assist from Bill Clinton's South Carolina forays into racial politics.
Did Bill Clinton deliberately encourage racial polarization by saying before South Carolina that one expects women to vote for Hillary and blacks for Obama? Or, after the primary, by dismissing Obama's victory with: "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice"?
With Bill Clinton, you never know. And there is no proving cause and effect, but the chronology is striking. Two weeks before the South Carolina primary, Obama was leading Hillary among blacks by only 53 percent to 30 percent. Ten days later, Obama was ahead 59 to 25. On voting day, he got 78 percent of the black vote. By the time the campaign trail reached Mississippi on Tuesday, Obama was getting 92 percent of the black vote. And only 26 percent of the white vote.
The pillars of American liberalism the Democratic Party, the universities and the mass media are obsessed with biological markers, most particularly race and gender. They have insisted, moreover, that pedagogy and culture and politics be just as seized with the primacy of these distinctions and with the resulting "privileging" that allegedly haunts every aspect of our social relations.
They have gotten their wish. This primary campaign represents the full flowering of identity politics. It's not a pretty picture. Geraldine Ferraro says Obama is where he is only because he's black. Professor Orlando Patterson says the 3 a.m. phone call ad is not about a foreign policy crisis but a subliminal Klan-like appeal to the fear of "black men lurking in the bushes around white society."
Good grief. The optimist will say that when this is over, we will look back on the Clinton-Obama contest, and its looming ugly endgame, as the low point of identity politics and the beginning of a turning away. The pessimist will just vote Republican.