The awkward truth about the candidates

HILLARY CLINTON'S "experience" may turn out to be the decisive factor after all in defeating Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries.

Not the "experience" Clinton talks about in her campaign speeches--her "35 years" of inhabiting the corridors of power that supposedly makes her more likely than Obama to "get things done in Washington."

No, we mean Clinton's--and her husband's, and her campaign staff's--"experience" in crushing opponents within the Democratic Party and putting together a well-oiled political machine that wins elections.

This week, attention will focus on South Carolina, where the Democrats hold their primary vote on January 26. Obama is hoping that African American voters will lift him to a strong win and give him momentum going into the Super Tuesday primaries on February 5, where the Democrats will have elections in 22 states.

So expect both campaigns to pull out all the stops. But remember that the dueling of the candidates and the nonstop spin of their staffers mask an awkward truth about the Democrats' nomination battle--that the two frontrunners agree on much more than they disagree on, and together, they stand for policies and political positions that are bound to disappoint the millions of people who are voting for them in the hopes that they will fundamentally change Washington from what it has been under George Bush.

Obama's campaign rode this wave of bitterness at the Republicans' right-wing agenda to an unexpectedly strong victory over both Clinton and John Edwards in Iowa. The key was a campaign organization that turned out record numbers of new caucus-goers for Obama--especially young people excited by his message, however vague, of "change" from the status quo.

The rattled Clinton campaign rebounded in New Hampshire with a determined drive to get its supporters to the polls that restored Clinton's edge over Obama among women voters. In last weekend's Nevada caucuses, Clinton won again because of the strength of her campaign machine.

At the same time, in the war over how the media portray the primaries, Clinton and her campaign operatives have kept Obama off balance and on the defensive, with all manner of attacks--something Obama is hoping to change in the run-up to the South Carolina vote.

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AS IMPORTANT as the issue of race will be in South Carolina, the chaos on world stock markets and growing fears about the severity of a looming recession have pushed the economy to the center of the campaign.

And the response last week of Barack Obama, the candidate of "change" from the status quo, was to...embrace the legacy of Ronald Reagan.

According to Obama, Reagan "changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path, because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s, government had grown and grown, but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating."

None of the bozos running for the Republican presidential nomination--each one professing their devotion to Reagan's discredited "trickle-down economics" doctrine of the beneficial effects of tax cuts for the super-rich--would put it much differently.

This is the real content of Obama's rhetoric about ending "partisan divisions" in Washington--concessions to the pro-free market and anti-"big government" ideology that came to dominate during the period of conservative dominance inaugurated by Reagan's presidency.

Thus, Obama is alone among the Democratic presidential hopefuls in raising the supposed threat of a Social Security crisis--a fraud designed to open the way for Social Security privatization schemes that would line pockets on Wall Street.

For her part, Clinton has taken a leaf from Edwards' populist campaign, and sharpened her criticism of growing income inequality and the foreclosure crisis.

But is this any more than campaign hot air? Since she takes credit for her husband's record in the White House in the 1990s, it should be remembered that Bill Clinton's presidency advanced the neoliberal agenda in Washington--from NAFTA and other free trade policies, to privatization and deregulation, to the gutting of social programs.

As a senator, Clinton has stayed within the party mainstream--thus, in 2001, she voted, along with the majority of Senate Democrats, for an early version of bankruptcy reform legislation designed to make it impossible for people to get out from under crippling debt.

In reality, there is little difference between Clinton and Obama on economic issues. Both will support an economic stimulus package, probably more generous than Bush's, but far from what's needed to do any good for those suffering the brunt of the crisis. Neither will support a health care proposal that challenges the role of the private insurance industry.

And both are beholden to Corporate America. Whatever criticisms they make of Wall Street banks and investment firms for stoking the sub-prime mortgage crisis that pushed the economy down the road toward recession, neither Clinton nor Obama were averse to taking their money.

Clinton leads in contributions from Wall Street--in the third quarter of last year, her haul from the financial sector was bigger than all the other candidates, Republican and Democrat, combined. But Obama came in second--he seems especially popular among super-rich hedge fund managers.

Millions of people will vote for Clinton or Obama in the hopes that they will live up to their claims of standing up for ordinary people. Neither one deserves that support.