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The Stevenson Complex

The Democratic presidential contest is beginning to take on a seesaw quality, as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama trade the mantle of frontrunner back and forth between them. Unless something shifts dramatically in the very near future, the race could continue unresolved for a long time. The two main rivals could even split the prizes on Super Tuesday, February 5, when 22 states hold primaries, leaving the Democratic nomination wide open — and the Democratic contenders bashing and weakening each other — into the spring or summer.

Thus, as John McCain builds up steam on the Republican side, the likelihood grows that the Democrats will have a real fight on their hands in November, despite all the failures of the Bush administration. Liberals may cringe at the thought of four more Republican years, but that won’t necessarily stop them from digging themselves into the hole.

Exit polls in New Hampshire suggest that Democrats tended to vote mainly on issues, while Republicans gave more consideration to character. What are the issues that separate Clinton and Obama? The battle is usually portrayed in simple, primary-color terms: vision vs. experience, youth vs. seasoning, oratory vs. governing skills. Obama is often described as the left-wing challenger to Clinton, the Washington insider — partly because he is more outspokenly antiwar, partly because he presents himself as the rebel in the contest.

On substance, the roles are reversed: Obama speaks of transcending ideology and uniting left and right, hardly the stuff of fighting liberalism. His notions of economic fairness don’t seem to include redistributing the pain by taxing the rich. His health care plans wouldn’t require Americans to sign up for insurance, effectively guaranteeing that many will remain uncovered.

But little of that will matter in November. American voters have demonstrated time and time again that they vote for the candidate they find more likable. Democrats repeatedly pick the candidate that they think deserves to win on the merits, and then they try to convince the electorate to take its medicine. No wonder Democrats have won only three of the last 10 presidential elections.

Earnest and dull don’t win elections in this country. The voters make it plain that they want a good ol’ boy in the White House, and the Democrats keep nominating Adlai Stevenson. It’s time they woke up.

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