The Democratic Presidential Debate on February 21 finally clarified the essential difference between Senators Clinton and Obama. First, they are similar on matters of policy - domestic and foreign. The differences between them, as in mandatory health insurance, are minimal. Even regarding Iraq, despite Obama having been against the invasion from the start, their approaches to troop withdrawal are virtually indistinguishable.
So what is this essential difference? It is one between a person who would once have been called a "cold-war liberal" and someone who mostly grew up post cold-war era. It is the difference between a baby boomer who had to "duck-and-cover" in anticipation of a Soviet nuclear attack and a post-boomer who grew up away from an America that had entered into treaties and had clearly become the preeminent world power.
While cold-war liberals were great on domestic policy - pro union, pro education, pro government protection of individual rights and freedoms - they were intimidated by McCarthy-ism: they had to prove that they were as militantly anti-communist as the next guy. They shared fears of Russian expansion (after all it was liberal Democrats who got us into the disastrous Vietnam war). Senator Clinton is either deeply scarred by that experience or she has to prove that she is as tough the modern-day anti-terrorist Republicans.
From her votes on Iraq and then on Iran - essentially giving Bush free rein to wage war yet a second time - Clinton seems to have embraced entirely the Republican saber-rattling posture. This makes her more like Senator McCain than like Senator Obama when it comes to using diplomacy. Her response to the opening question about whether she would talk to Raul Castro made it clear: she wants our adversaries to prove to us that they want to change before talking to them. This is cold-war liberalism morphed into modern day neo-con thinking replete with tough talk preceding genuine dialogue.
Senator Obama is not similarly crippled. He believes that we can talk to people with whom we disagree and that we can change our own diplomatic approach without insisting that our adversaries change first. Obama attracts young people who don't relate to all the posturing and tough talk. Even though they all felt the tragedy of 9/11, they think knee-jerk bombing of Iraq isn't the answer. Others who are older are attracted to Obama because they are sick not only of living in fear but also of living inside a unilateral and ultimately a superior approach to other nations. They think that talking allows space for thinking - on both sides. This is something that is refreshingly appealing about Mr. Obama.
Finally, this fundamental difference about whether people have to prove themselves before we listen to them has serious consequences for domestic policy as well. Although both Clinton and Obama are deeply concerned about the health and wellbeing of all Americans, one of them will be more open to listening to their needs than the other. There is no question that either Democrat would be better that George W Bush OR John McCain, not just domestically but about troop withdrawal from Iraq. But I think that the "change" Obama wants is a fundamental change in attitude, an openness that transcends specific policies and squabbles about rhetoric.
Debate excerpts about whether or not they would meet with Raul Castro get to the heart of the matter:
CLINTON:I would not meet with him until there was evidence that change was happening because I think it's important that they demonstrate clearly that they are committed to change the direction.
Then I think, you know, something like diplomatic encounters and negotiations over specifics could take place.
But we've had this conversation before, Senator Obama and myself, and I believe that we should have full diplomatic engagement, where appropriate. But a presidential visit should not be offered and given without some evidence that it will demonstrate the kind of progress that is in our interest and, in this case, in the interest of the Cuban people.
OBAMA: I would meet without preconditions, although Senator Clinton is right that there has to be preparation. It is very important for us to make sure that there was an agenda and on that agenda was human rights, releasing of political prisoners, opening up the press. And that preparation might take some time.
But I do think that it is important for the United States not just to talk to its friends but also to talk to its enemies. In fact, that's where diplomacy makes the biggest difference.
CLINTON: But there has been this difference between us over when and whether the president should offer a meeting without preconditions with those with whom we do not have diplomatic relations, and it should be part of a process. But I don't think it should be offered in the beginning because I think that undermines the capacity for us to actually take the measure of somebody like Raul Castro or Ahmadinejad and others.
OBAMA: Because the problem isn't -- is if we think that meeting with the president is a privilege that has to be earned, I think that reinforces the sense that we stand above the rest of the world at this point in time, and I think that it's important for us, in undoing the damage that has been done over the last seven years, for the president to be willing to take that extra step. That's the kind of step that I would like to take as president of the United States.