Zakaria: The Wrong Experience

The Democratic Party's two remaining candidates have become so cordial toward one another that you could easily believe there are few substantive differences between them. At last Thursday's debate, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton heartily agreed on most issues and added that they were having a wonderful time chatting with one another. The Republican race, by contrast, is bubbling over with tensions and personal animosities. Watch any encounter between John McCain and Mitt Romney and you can almost see the smoke steaming out of each one's ears.

This Democratic amity is not just about making up. The party is far more united than in the past. And yet there are important distinctions between Obama and Clinton—and not simply in the broad, almost gassy talk of inspiration versus experience. They come to today's challenges from very different places.

Consider Cuba policy. Almost anyone who is being honest will acknowledge that America's approach toward Cuba is brain dead. No one even remembers why we've imposed a total embargo on the country. A policy that was put into place at the height of the cold war, when fears of Soviet missiles and communist penetration were at their peak, has been maintained even though the threat that prompted it has collapsed. What exactly are we afraid this moth-eaten island will do to America today?

Our policy has the additional burden of having failed, by any measure. We've been trying to force regime change in Cuba for 45 years. Instead Fidel Castro is now the longest-lived head of government in the world. Every tightening of the Cuban embargo has resulted in further repression and isolation. And yet the only changes George W. Bush has made to our Cuba policy have been to impose more restrictions on travel and trade, a cruel and futile doubling down on a bad bet.

Obama has advocated easing the Bush-imposed ban on Cuban-Americans visiting the island and sending money to their relatives. He makes a broader case for a new Cuba policy, arguing that capitalism, trade and travel will help break the regime's stranglehold on the country and help open things up.

Clinton immediately disagreed, firmly supporting the current policy. This places her in the strange position of arguing, in effect, that her husband's Cuba policy was not hard-line enough. But this is really not the best way to understand Clinton's position. In all probability, she actually agrees with Obama's stand. She is just calculating that it would anger Cuban-Americans in Florida and New Jersey.

This is the problem with Hillary Clinton. She is highly intelligent, has real experience and is an attractive candidate. But she is terrified to act on her beliefs. In fact, she seems so conditioned by what she sees as political constraints that one can barely tell where her beliefs begin and where those constraints end.

Partly, this is a generational difference. Bill and Hillary Clinton grew up in an era of Republican dominance. For much of the last 30 years, the Republican Party has been the party of ideas (a point made repeatedly by Daniel Patrick Moynihan), and Ronald Reagan was seen by much of the country to have rescued America from malaise and retreat. The Clintons' careers have been shaped by the belief that for a Democrat to succeed, he or she had to work within this conservative ideological framework. Otherwise one would be pilloried for being weak on national security, partial to taxes and big government and out of touch with Middle America's social values.

For 30 years this has been the right bet. It's why Bill Clinton was the only successful national Democratic politician in that period. But is it still the right wager? Obama has grown up in a different landscape—with vastly different geopolitics, economics and culture. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have been the defining political figures of the recent past. Conservatism has lost its monopoly role. As a result, the new generation is not defensive about its beliefs, nor does it feel trapped into the old categories like hawks versus doves and markets versus taxes.

This is not naiveté. Obama's position on Cuba is not all hope. Most of the older generation of Cuban-Americans are hard-line Republicans anyway, so it's probably pointless courting them. And the younger ones—under 45 or so—are far less wedded to the punitive approach and symbolic battles of the past. So Obama is taking a calculated risk that the time is right.

Cuba policy is a microcosm for this difference in attitudes. Obama has spoken in favor of a proposal—made by Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn—that in order to get the world more serious about nuclear nonproliferation, the United States should begin to fulfill its end of the treaty and reduce its own nuclear arsenal. Again, for all I know, Hillary Clinton agrees with this approach. But she won't say so. Her long years of experience—in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s—warn her against such audacity. But the world has changed so much—the cold war is a distant memory, capitalism has spread across the world, new threats come not from states but small bands of people, unilateralism is discredited—that perhaps it is time for America to change as well.