Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton (whom I am supporting for president) and Senator John McCain differ on most issues. So do Democratic Senator Barack Obama and Republican Governor Mike Huckabee. But, in my view, there are similarities in the campaign themes and core messages of Senators Clinton and McCain, on the one hand, and Senator Obama and Governor Huckabee on the other.
First, Senators Clinton and McCain make the same argument that they have superior experience and readiness to be president from day one; whereas Senator Obama and Governor Huckabee make a similar argument that little or no experience in national political office and in domestic and foreign policy decision-making is not a disadvantage.
It is hard to dispute that Senators Clinton and McCain have greater experience in Washington and, in the case of Senator Clinton, for eight years on the front lines of key decisions in the White House. The only debate seems to be whether such experience should be more influential in a voter's choice for president than a campaign theme of "change" and "new leadership." Fair enough. But what strikes me as illogical, even irrational, is the Obama/Huckabee argument that superior and national and foreign policy experience is somehow inconsistent with change. How can that be? Certainly one can have extensive experience and be committed to use it to enact fundamental changes. How can it be argued otherwise?
A second similarity between Clinton/McCain vs. Obama/Huckabee is that the former are appealing to more traditional bases within their respective parties than the latter.
The data shows that Senator Clinton runs far more strongly than Senator Obama among working middle-class/working class voters -- certainly, the core of the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" since FDR; whereas Senator Obama has greater appeal to the so-called "Starbucks voters" - upper income professionals and college students who have the luxury of focusing more on cerebral political inspiration since they do not feel serious economic pain in their daily lives.
We saw the same split in data in the Democratic Party's base in the Walter Mondale-Gary Hart contest in 1984 (with Mondale appealing to workers and Hart appealing to "Starbucks voters" before anyone had ever heard of "Starbucks.") More recently, there was the 2000 Democratic nomination contest between Vice President Al Gore (with a strong base among blue collars) and former Senator Bill Bradley, both more cerebral and appealing to upper income voters.
Similarly, Senator McCain emphasizes more traditional fiscally conservative, pro-business Republicanism going back to Dwight Eisenhower through Ronald Reagan and President Bush I - although clearly Senator McCain has ruffled the feathers of some core conservative base voters by his early support for comprehensive immigration reform and campaign finance reform; whereas Governor Huckabee doesn't mind sounding socially liberal, even populist, in his rhetoric, with a record of Governor of Arkansas of increasing spending, "fees" and supporting progressive social programs, far more off-putting to traditional Republican economic conservatives than Senator McCain..
If the data and themes continue in this dichotomy, history would suggest that Senators Clinton and McCain will ultimately be the nominees because they seem to appeal to the core values and historic bases of their respective parties more than Senator Obama and Governor Huckabee.
It will be interesting to see whether Senator Obama will try to shift his campaign theme from inspirational oratory to more substantive economic issues. He might remember what happened to Senator Gary Hart in 1984 when he focused on "change" and "inspiration" at the expense of specific bread-and-butter economic issues. He too could be vulnerable, if he isn't already, to the question Vice President Mondale asked him on a nationally televised debate:
"Where's the beef?"
Meanwhile, Senator Hillary Clinton has already taken leadership of the phrase that became emblematic of her husband's first successful presidential campaign in 1992:
"It's the economy, stupid."
Republican voters are clearly fascinated by the novelty and inspiration of Governor Huckabee's plain-spoken, faith-based messages. But in the final analysis, Senator McCain is a better fit of the traditional Eisenhower-Reagan conservative values of most Republican voters over the last half-century.
One prediction: If the nominees end up to be Senator Clinton and Senator McCain, it should be one of the highest level presidential campaigns waged in U.S. history. They are both personal friends. They both respect each other. Both have been on the vicious receiving ends of the politics of personal destruction. And both believe it is possible, indeed imperative, to debate the issues and to disagree agreeably.
In this respect, all four candidates - Clinton, Obama, McCain, and Huckabee - agree on one overriding theme: It is time to put America to move beyond the hyper-partisanship of the last six years and back into the bipartisan solutions business. That's good news for the country if any one of them happens to be elected president.