Quindlen: Why the Dems Must Unite Soon

Once upon a time there was a primary election, and it was good. Excellent, even. Millions of voters went to the polls, and millions watched televised debates, even though it seemed as though there were millions of debates. Young people awoke from what had been a long and completely understandable somnolence, and older people got a second wind, and people who had felt disenfranchised felt franchised. All the old saws about American apathy had to be packed up and put away.

Less than a year later one person walked into the Oval Office and sat down at the president's desk to clean up the sorry mess accumulated there: the bloated deficit, the fractured international relations, the ill-conceived war, the forgotten domestic agenda. And whether that will be a happy ending—and a happy beginning—depends on what happens between this day and that one.

It's conventional wisdom that a long primary battle, like the one now being waged between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, inevitably leads to a disadvantaged contender limping, bruised and battered, into the general election. But most conventional wisdom about this election has been dead wrong. It's easy to cite unequivocal quotes from those who predicted the invincibility of Clinton, the death knell of John McCain and the inevitability of Rudy Giuliani. Political junkies have had to learn the lesson of addiction: one day at a time.

But if it's perilous to predict exactly who will be the candidate, it's important for Democrats to plan on how to approach the election. Here's the lesson of Super Tuesday: a significant number of voters didn't actually know what lever they would pull until the very last minute. This was not because the undecideds were feckless come-latelies who hadn't been paying attention, but because they had to make a difficult calculus between two good choices. An NBC poll reported that seven out of 10 Democrats said they would be happy with either one.

That may not have been the case with passionate Obama supporters, who style Senator Clinton as same-old, or passionate Clinton supporters, who suggest that Senator Obama is mostly style over substance. But one of the pitfalls of passion is that it overwhelms pragmatism. I voted for Clinton in the New York primary; I believe her learning curve for the presidency would be slight and her ability to turn good policy into legislation considerable. I was appalled by her vote on the Iraq War; I have always been impressed by her grasp of issues.

But like many primary voters, I could support Obama, too; his confident climb has been an inspiration and his positions are not much different than those of his opponent. At a certain point it's necessary to untether policy and personality and consider not only whom you like, but what you want.

Despite the vitriol of Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, and McCain's occasional forays into moderation with immigration policy and campaign-finance reform, Senator McCain is not a moderate or a liberal but a down-deep conservative, with an approval rating of 80 percent in 2006 from the Traditional Values Coalition and an open enthusiasm for the invasion of Iraq. So in the general election voters will have a choice between disparate futures—for the war, for universal health care, for social-welfare programs and for the Supreme Court, whose majority is aging and whose decisions so shape civil liberties. Those who doubt the differences between Republicans and Democrats might consider the differences between today and eight years ago, when the federal government had a surplus and the country was at peace.

The first debate in which Clinton and Obama shared the stage alone for the first time was substantive and civil; they disagreed about some matters but the similarities were obvious. They also each offered a big picture of the coming contest. "The differences between Barack and I pale in comparison to the differences that we have with Republicans," Senator Clinton said. Senator Obama added, "It is really important, I think, for us also to give the American people this sense—as they are struggling with their mortgages and struggling with their health care and trying to figure out how to get their kids in a school that will teach them and prepare them and equip them for this century—that they get a sense that government's on their side, that government is listening, that it's carrying their voices into the White House. And that's not what's happened over the last seven years."

The fracas between the anti-immigrant right wing of the Republican Party and Senator McCain shows that the Republicans have now learned something at which the Democrats have long excelled: how to eat their young, or, in McCain's case, their not-so-young. For many years the Democratic victory of choice was the Pyrrhic victory, which is synonymous with defeat, but the kind of defeat you could feel smug about afterward. Over time this turned out not to be particularly satisfying, either for the party or the people.

Not long ago there was a plan in some states to turn the franchise into a million-dollar lottery to bump up pathetic voter turnout; on Super Tuesday the momentum was so great that people tried to vote in states that weren't even having primaries. Americans are awake and aware again, and if the committed Democratic supporters of one candidate or another turn this new era of good feeling into the era of prolonged sulking, the election won't be the only thing they'll lose.