Preparation, inspiration, aspiration

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THE FIRST Republican and Democratic presidential debates of 2008 reminded me of the Gettysburg Address -- at least the part where Abraham Lincoln said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.... “

That judgment turned out to be pessimistic in Lincoln’s case, but it might actually be generous for the two recent scrums between the 2008 presidential contenders. What else can you say about encounters highlighted by evidence that Democrat Mike Gravel is apparently off his meds and the news that nearly one-third of the Republican candidates publicly admit that they don’t believe in evolution.

Maybe at the next debate we can survey the Republican field’s opinion on whether the Earth is flat.


Still, the debates provide a convenient moment for assessing the contests for each party’s nomination after four months of unusually intense early campaigning. On each side, the debates confirmed rather than reconfigured the structure of the field.

Each party entered the debates with a three-person top tier of contenders: for the Republicans, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney, and for the Democrats, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. The debates did nothing to disturb that alignment, though they did suggest that the distance in quality between the first and second tier is a gentle slope among the Democrats and an abrupt chasm among the Republicans.

The debates were more intriguing for the way they confirmed the alignment within each field’s top tier. In each party, the top three candidates are positioning themselves against their rivals in a similar pattern. On both sides, the leading contenders now divide among a candidate of preparation, of inspiration and of aspiration.

Clinton is the Democrats’ candidate of preparation. The foundation of her argument is that she has the experience, skills and toughness to deliver the change that Democratic voters demand. Her greatest strength may be the confidence among Democrats that, in a complex domestic and international environment, she would be prepared to serve as president from Day One. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, she led Obama and Edwards by 8 to 1 when Democratic voters were asked which candidate is best prepared for the presidency.

Obama is the Democratic candidate of inspiration. His strength is his ability to rouse audiences with his vision of a national reconciliation that bridges today’s partisan divides -- a promise he seems as much to embody (through his experience straddling boundaries as a man of mixed racial heritage) as to articulate. As one of Clinton’s senior political advisors puts it: “We start with strong, leader and smart as advantages. He has fresh, new and inspiring as his advantages.” Two South Carolina marketing companies succinctly captured the dynamic when they observed in a recent study that, in the Democratic race, Obama is “Apple to Hillary’s Microsoft.”

Edwards, meanwhile, is betting on aspiration. He sells himself as the candidate with the most ambitious agenda at home and abroad. “I’m proud of the fact that I have a very specific universal healthcare plan, which I think is different than some others,” Edwards said at the debate. Specificity may prove a wasting asset as his rivals unveil their own ideas, but Edwards is still likely to insist that his proposals represent the field’s boldest change. And given his initial offerings on such issues as health and energy, he could have a strong case.


On the Republican side, the distinctions aren’t quite as firm because each of the top three candidates stresses experience. But the basic pattern still holds.

McCain (who, dutiful readers will recall, employs my wife in his Senate office) is the Republican emphasizing preparation. He stresses his experience in the military and in Washington. “I may not be the youngest candidate in this race,” he declared at the debate, “but I am the most prepared.”

Giuliani is the Republican relying most on inspiration. “What we can borrow from Ronald Reagan,” Giuliani said at the debate, “is [his] ... great sense of optimism.” Romney is the Republican candidate of aspiration, selling himself as the man with a policy plan for change. “I can’t wait to get my hands on Washington’s budget,” he said.

It’s probably no coincidence that the candidates of inspiration (Obama and Giuliani) fizzled at the debates, which tend to favor the concrete over the motivational. To my eye, the most effective Democrat was Clinton, who seemed, well, the best prepared; and the best Republican was Romney, who appeared more knowledgeable than Giuliani and more personable than McCain.

Every candidate is likely to experience peaks and valleys in his or her performance in the months ahead. But with the leading contenders stressing such distinct elements of leadership, these nominating races may turn not only on who strikes a chord with voters but what qualities Americans are seeking in the next president.