With Super Tuesday nine days away, Californians are about to help choose two candidates for the most powerful job in the world. Let me suggest that for the state's Democrats, nobody should really care who wins.
The Republican primary battle has been about the soul of the party. Mike Huckabee and Rudolph W. Giuliani may be fading, but for now they are still alive -- and they represent the ideological bookends of their party. Huckabee once called homosexuality "aberrant" and "sinful"; Giuliani moved in with two gay friends when his second marriage fell apart and he had to flee the mayor's mansion in New York. John McCain and Mitt Romney are somewhere in between, but the point is that across the spectrum of major GOP candidates, there are gaping philosophical differences.
But the three major Democratic candidates are all of the same cloth. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards all oppose the war in Iraq. They all have plans to expand health insurance coverage, yet none favors a single-payer system. All three would implement a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, yet none proposes a carbon tax. All favor civil unions but oppose same-sex marriage. And so on.
Differences exist, both rhetorically and on policy. Edwards is more the economic populist. Clinton would require people to buy health insurance; not so for Obama or Edwards.
But those details probably won't make an enormous difference in the White House. In office, campaign proposals have to be reshaped through the dirty process of lawmaking. Governing, at least in a democracy, is the art of compromise.
So it's easy to imagine that a Clinton administration would look like an Obama would look like an Edwards. A good many of the appointees might be the same.
The first female president or the first African American one would be an inspiring and historic breakthrough, but do we really want to pit the options against one another, judging which would be more important?
Electability rears up. Shouldn't Democrats pick the person most likely to win in November? Here's the problem: Who knows? Hypothetical polls testing various general election match-ups don't mean much, for no matter the identity of the two nominees, an intervening year of campaigning awaits.
What's more, I suspect that the overarching dynamic of the fall campaign -- voter frustration with President Bush and a resulting receptivity to Democrats -- will be more important than the candidates' individual identities. It's very possible that any Democrat will beat any Republican.
Mind you, I have a preference among the three major Democrats. I will vote Feb. 5. I just don't think it makes much difference, and I can't see why people are investing so much emotional energy in the outcome. Republicans may be deciding something fundamental about the direction of their party. Democrats are just choosing among slightly different headings on the same general course.
None of this is to say that elections don't matter. If the last eight years taught us anything, it is that the performance of the president can radically alter the country and the world.
But the real gap is between the two parties. Perhaps Ralph Nader still thinks they are identical. I can't say that I've asked him personally.
And yes, there are some ambivalent creatures out there. Michael Bloomberg is registered as a Republican but is really a Democrat. Arnold Schwarzenegger is somewhere in the middle. Joe Lieberman has become a partisan hermaphrodite.
Still, in most cases, Republicans and Democrats are starkly different beasts, which is why, whatever your affiliation, elections are crucially important. November elections. General elections. Not the one next month. If you're a Democrat, keep your powder (and your checkbook) dry, and wait for the big battle.
Ethan Rarick is the author of "California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown" and the forthcoming "Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West."