If the zeitgeist were all, Barack Obama would be winning the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. Every poll shows record numbers of Americans despairing of their nation's direction and clamoring for change. Two surveys conducted in late October, one for ABC News and The Washington Post, the other for the Stan Greenberg-James Carville group, Democracy Corps, showed that just under three-quarters of Americans think the nation is on the wrong track, while just under one-quarter believe things are going in the right direction. As the voters see it, the Republicans are chiefly to blame. On one crucial issue after another, and in the partisan identification of voters, the Democrats' advantage over the Republicans continues to grow. The incumbent Republican president has an approval rating worthy of a disease.
At first glance, then, this should be the Obama moment. He is, among his fellow candidates, uniquely innocent of our past sins. No other candidate personifies change so viscerally and completely; no other candidate promises an end to the era of hyper-partisanship that vexes millions of Americans; no other candidate could so instantly dispel the disrepute into which America has fallen across the globe.
Or, if not Obama, then surely John Edwards should be the beneficiary of the public's profound dissatisfaction with the increasingly misshapen American economy. When the Democracy Corps followed up among those respondents who said that the nation was on the wrong track, it found that both Democrats and independents were particularly dissatisfied by the power of big business and the disinclination of government to do something -- anything -- for Americans' beleaguered middle class.
Within the presidential field, Edwards alone has waged an anti-plutocratic, help-the-middle-class campaign. No other candidates have been so explicit or far-reaching in their commitment to help unions rebuild, or in their opposition to trade deals that advantage banks and corporations over workers.
There are, to be sure, some elements of the zeitgeist that have worked to Hillary Clinton's advantage. George W. Bush has given zeal, impulse, ideology, and incaution a bad name; he has, by omission, demonstrated the need for expertise, experience, realism, mastery of government, and simple competence. Nonetheless, a season defined by a yearning for wholesale change, for an end to the Iraq War, and for moderation of partisanship without progress -- you would not think this would be Clinton's time.
And yet, manifestly, it is. The caucus-goers of Iowa still have time to alter that equation, of course, but so great is Clinton's lead -- nationally, as of late October, she was commanding roughly 50 percent support in most polls, leading Obama by a 2-to-1 margin and Edwards by 4-to-1 -- that Iowa is shaping up not just as Obama's and Edwards' first chance to derail the Hillary Express but quite possibly their last. If Clinton wins Iowa, it's hard to imagine where or how her rivals could stop her.
Remarkably, Clinton has widened her lead by winning over the very voters whom Obama and Edwards had reason to think would be theirs. Looking at the ABC/Washington Post polls for 2007, Clinton's support among moderate and conservative Democrats has held steady: She had 44 percent support among them in February, and 46 percent in October. Among Democratic liberals, though, her support has jumped from 40 percent earlier in the year to 54 percent in October. Obama, meanwhile, has seen his support among liberals decline from 36 percent in midsummer to 25 percent in October. And among Democrats who favor an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, Clinton holds a commanding lead over Obama, 45 percent to 26 percent.
So the candidate of the Democratic establishment, who voted for the resolution authorizing the war in Iraq and, more recently, for a resolution that Bush might invoke to justify war in Iran, has become the clear front-runner in a party screaming for change and peace. That Clinton has managed to pull this off is a tribute to the strategic and tactical brilliance of her campaign, and to the mistakes, misfortunes, and limitations of her rivals'. It is also a tribute to the fact that the divisions among Democrats these days just ain't what they used to be.
Clinton began the year under pressure to renounce her 2002 vote authorizing the war in Iraq. She never did, but by calling for the withdrawal of the vast majority of U.S. forces from Iraq, she made it all but impossible for Democratic voters to distinguish her position from Edwards' and Obama's. On big-ticket domestic issues like health care and energy, she has proposed policies as, if not more, progressive that those of the other leading Democrats.
In short, she hasn't left Obama and Edwards with all that much to attack, at least by the historic standards of Democratic presidential primaries. That's not to say that there aren't real differences among the candidates. I would trust Edwards to fund needed social and infrastructure investments far more than I would Clinton (or Obama); I would trust Obama to clean up campaign finance far more than I would Clinton. But on the front-burner issues, the only area where Clinton has truly opened herself to attack is her vote labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.
Edwards and Obama, of course, would have to make something of this -- something that they have yet to do on any major issue. When it comes to attacking, Obama has an instinct for the capillary. He is a man for synthesis, not differentiation; you want him on your side before and after a fight, though not necessarily during it. (With Clinton, apparently, the time to be wary is before the fight, as her votes on Iraq and Iran make clear.) Edwards, by contrast, knows where to find the artery, though the odds are that his attacks in Iowa may end up helping Obama more than they help him -- if they help either of them at all.
Obama, in particular, is the candidate who has failed to help himself. A candidate of freshness has to be a fount of new ideas, and on domestic policy, Obama's campaign has been bewilderingly timid. (His health-care plan, for instance, does not propose universal coverage, as Clinton's and Edwards' do.) On foreign policy he has offered some bold ideas -- most recently, his commitment to negotiating with Iran -- though whether he has the ability to contrast this sharply with Clinton's Iran vote is open to doubt.
More generally, Obama has needed to build on his early advantage among younger voters and college-educated professionals by bolstering his thoughtful image with some breakthrough proposals; and he's needed to win over more working-class Democrats by conveying a surer sense of advocacy on their behalf. He's done neither, a sin of omission that has directly benefited Clinton: He has steadily declined in polls of Democratic college graduates, and of young people, as Clinton has steadily risen. Obama's caution has also heightened the one distinction between him and Clinton that has always worked in her favor: the experience gap. With each debate, at least until the one in Philadelphia, she seemed the candidate who could more plausibly stand up to Rudy Giuliani -- and to foreign adversaries, too.
But the story of the campaign, so far, isn't simply the transfer of many Democrats' support from Obama's column to Clinton's. It's also the inability of Edwards to capture any of that shift. Some of Edwards' problem has been beyond his control: He is running against two demographic breakthrough candidates, two major candidates who are making history simply by being major candidates. He is also running a populist campaign, raising themes and defending Americans that most of the media are disinclined to take seriously. (Unions do take them seriously, but many have shied from endorsing him because he's trailing in the polls.) But the ability of Clinton to co-opt just enough of his themes has proven his most formidable impediment. She has stolen some of his thunder on domestic issues as, even more remarkably, she has stolen some of Obama's on foreign policy.
Clinton's ability to co-opt issues is a tribute to her political adeptness, but it is also a consequence of the fact that this is a time of Democratic cohesion. In Congress, Democrats are voting the party line more than ever before. Everyone is for universal health coverage; everyone (except Joe Lieberman) is against the Bush-neoconservative foreign policy. Real intraparty differences on trade and other issues remain, but the pitched battles and opposing armies that defined the party in decades past are nowhere to be seen.
Instead, the real differences in American politics are those between the parties, not within them. That means that the key to enacting universal health insurance or labor law reform isn't whether Edwards or Clinton is president, though Edwards' commitment to creating a fairer labor law exceeds his rivals'. Rather, the fate of such measures depends on having a Democratic president, any Democratic president, and picking up enough Democratic senators in 2008 to break Republican filibusters.
No one can predict which Democratic presidential candidate is likely to bring in the most new Democratic senators in his or her wake. In some states, Clinton could certainly be a drag on down-ticket candidates, but at this juncture, who can say if she'd be better or worse than Obama? At the same time, if Democratic voters, like Democratic bloggers, are looking for a candidate tough enough to withstand the forthcoming Republican swift-boating, Clinton certainly has enhanced her credentials on that score. Clinton has played 2007 very well, but the year isn't over yet. Her vote on Iran, and her pirouettes on the issue of driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, could reinforce the perception that she's too smart by half, too calculating, too triangulating, too -- well, Clintonian. If Obama or Edwards can make this charge stick over the next two months, we may yet have a race. So far, they haven't even come close.