On Tuesday, Pennsylvanians will have the unusual luxury of voting in a Democratic presidential primary that promises to be truly relevant. Like two opposing armies marching to a new Gettysburg, the forces of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton come to this latest battlefield symbolizing two views of America -- one of the past, one of the future. Pennsylvania Democrats need to rise to the historic moment.
For us it is the candidates' vision and character that loom as the decisive factors in this race. For as dissimilar as they are, the two share much in common. It starts with their mold-breaking candidacies. Whoever wins the nomination will vie for a special place in U.S. history -- to be either the first African-American or the first female commander in chief.
Although their backgrounds are different, they have come to the same conclusion, one now shared by many Americans, that the Bush administration has taken the nation on a profoundly wrong course both at home and abroad. The excitement that has animated this primary season -- the surge of new voters, the change of party registrations -- is an expression of the nation's hunger for change.
For as hard as they have run against each other, both candidates are united in running vehemently against President Bush and all his works -- another common theme that came out in their visits to the Post-Gazette editorial board on successive days this week. Sen. Clinton was the more explicit in her disdain: George W. Bush "is one of the worst, if not the worst, president we have ever had."
Not surprisingly, the policies they advocate have much in common and are generally the polar opposites of those espoused by the current administration.
On the domestic front, the prescriptions they offer on issues such as health care, the environment and education declare that government must be an agent of change to benefit the lives of ordinary Americans, not a power that shrinks from regulating or directing for fear of offending a core ideology.
In their expansive plans, Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton do have their own emphases and differences -- Sen. Clinton's health-care plan, for example, would cover more Americans than Sen. Obama's, but both would be a vast improvement on the status quo that leaves 47 million Americans uninsured and continues to soar in expense.
On foreign policy, both are united in their desire to bring the troops home from Iraq while improving the strategic situation in Afghanistan, the place of unfinished business where the al-Qaida spiders first spun their deadly web for 9/11 and are coming back thanks to the Iraq diversion.
On Iraq, for those inclined to remember, Sen. Clinton carries more baggage, for she voted to approve the war in the first place. For those inclined to forgive, she would seek to repair relations with allies strained by the Iraq misadventure, as Sen. Obama also would.
There is one last common ground for these candidates: They are both uncommonly smart, thoughtful and very well-versed in the issues. They care about people and they care about the workings of government. They are prepared.
Their strengths promise, in short, the one thing that the Bush administration has so shockingly lacked: competency. There will be no intellectually lazy president in the White House if either succeeded to it, no outsourced thinking to the vice president or the secretary of defense, no cheerfully shallow praise for unqualified political appointments, no enduring cause for embarrassment by the American people.
So forget all the primary skirmishing. Sen. Obama is every bit as prepared to answer the ring of the 3 a.m. phone as Sen. Clinton. Forget this idea that Sen. Obama is all inspiration and no substance. He has detailed positions on the major issues. When the occasion demands it, he can marshal eloquence in the service of making challenging arguments, which he did to great effect in his now-famous speech putting his pastor's remarks in the greater context of race relations in America.
Nor is he any sort of elitist. As he said yesterday in effectively refuting this ridiculous charge in a meeting with Post-Gazette editors, "my life's work has been to get everybody a fair shake."
This editorial began by observing that one candidate is of the past and one of the future. The litany of criticisms heaped on Sen. Obama by the Clinton camp, simultaneously doing the work of the Republicans, is as illustrative as anything of which one is which. These are the cynical responses of the old politics to the new.
Sen. Obama has captured much of the nation's imagination for a reason. He offers real change, a vision of an America that can move past not only racial tensions but also the political partisanship that has so bedeviled it.
To be sure, Sen. Clinton carries the aspirations of women in particular, but even in this she is something of a throwback, a woman whose identity and public position are indelibly linked to her husband, her own considerable talents notwithstanding. It does not help that the Clinton brand is seen by many in the country as suspect and shifty, bearing the grimy stamp of political calculation counting as much as principle.
Pennsylvania -- this encrusted, change-averse commonwealth where a state liquor monopoly holds on against all reason and where municipal fiefdoms shrink from sensible consolidation -- needs to take a strong look at the new face and the new hope in this race. Because political business-as-usual is more likely to bring the usual disappointment for the Democrats this fall, the Post-Gazette endorses the nomination of Barack Obama, who has brought an excitement and an electricity to American politics not seen since the days of John F. Kennedy.