Who Can Deliver More Political Change -- Hillary or Obama?
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When the history of Campaign 2008 is written, a memorable image will be Hillary Clinton's poor imitation of Barack Obama as she strode across a stage in Rhode Island mocking the idea that change will come when the sky opens for a "celestial choir."
Though Sen. Clinton's performance left many political observers wondering if the long campaign had finally gotten to her, Sen. Obama brushed off the affront with a smile and a generous critique.
"Well, I thought Sen. Clinton showed some good humor there," he said in a Feb. 26 debate. "I would give her points for delivery."
But the larger question underscored by the "celestial choir" argument is who has the better chance to achieve real political change in Washington, Clinton or Obama? Indeed, that dispute could be the last major question the Democrats must answer before the primary battles come to an end.
Essentially, Hillary Clinton has argued that significant reforms, such as universal health care, can be achieved only through "hard work" and a readiness to "fight" the special interests and Republican obstructionists.
She frequently cites her bitter history with what she once famously dubbed the "vast right-wing conspiracy" -- when Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay teamed up with powerful media outlets like Rush Limbaugh's radio show and Fox News to impeach her husband in the late 1990s.
Even earlier, she saw her treasured health care initiative reach Congress virtually dead on arrival, the victim of astute lobbyists for the medical and insurance industries who pounced on her every misstep.
During Campaign 2008, Sen. Clinton has argued that she learned her lessons and is now better prepared to prevail if she is elected president.
By contrast, Obama maintains that real change can only come if the American people are fully engaged in the political battle, that they must keep the pressure on their representatives in Congress to bring "change from below."
Obama also talks about reaching beyond the Democratic Party to enlist many independents and some Republicans, an expectation that some tough-minded Democrats view as hopelessly nave, what they call his "Kumbayah" approach.
In a sense, neither Clinton nor Obama is offering a fully accurate analysis, although it is possible that Obama is not giving his total picture because to do so might sound too partisan and thus alienate non-Democratic voters.
The simple fact is that the Democrats probably can achieve significant change only if they soundly defeat the Republicans. Numbers will matter. If the Democrats win the White House in a close election and maintain their slim congressional majorities, the political dynamic won't be transformed.
If the Democrats have only a slight edge in Congress, the Republicans could be expected to use the filibuster to frustrate legislation and count on their influential media allies to put the new president on the defensive, much like they did to Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
Democrats, who dream about "moderate Republicans" -- the likes of Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Arlen Specter -- abandoning their party on key votes, haven't examined the congressional history of the past quarter century. Rarely do the GOP "moderates" cast meaningful votes that advance the Democratic agenda.
If there is a closely divided Congress, Hillary Clinton's commitment to "hard work" and her determination to "fight" would offer little promise of success. The Republicans have long demonstrated that they possess a determination and staying power that can match anything the Democrats can deliver.
So, the only real hope for change would seem to be a Democratic landslide -- for the presidency and Congress. The Democrats would have to take chances to stretch the political landscape and push into traditional "red states."
That means they would need a presidential candidate with old-fashioned coattails, someone who can lift the Democratic Senate majority close to 60 -- enough to thwart a filibuster -- and build a substantial House majority.
Even then, change would be difficult. Many Democrats are as beholden to the special interests as the Republicans are -- and the well-financed right-wing attack machine has no intention of dismantling itself, instead it might look forward to another period of playing offense as it did in the 1990s.
Still, this imperative for the Democrats to win big -- and thus be in position to pass significant legislation -- would seem to play to Obama's advantage, given his oratorical skills and his broader appeal.
Polls show that Hillary Clinton remains a divisive figure with high negatives and with large numbers of voters vowing never to support her. It appears that she could prevail in the general election but probably not by a sizable margin.
In contrast, Obama doesn't have her high negatives, at least not yet. He also seems to have an inclusive style that attracts many political independents as well as some disgruntled Republicans.
Obama has what baseball scouts might call a big upside. Of course, he also can expect an aggressive effort by Republicans to define him in a harshly negative way and exaggerate his downside. Some Clinton operatives have already tried that, with only limited success.
Though the risks are surely there, Obama does appear to be the only candidate left in the race with the potential to achieve a transformational change in American politics.