THE MOST cogent characterization of last night's Republican presidential debate was made by Senator Hillary Clinton during the Democratic candidates' debate two nights earlier. "The differences among us are minor," she said. "The differences between us and the Republicans are major. And I don't want anybody in America to be confused."
In 1968, running for president as an independent, Alabama Governor George Wallace insisted that there wasn't "a dime's worth of difference" between the two major parties. No one who watched the two debates in New Hampshire this week would say that today.
On issue after issue, the contrasts came through loud and clear. Where the Democrats squabbled over who is the most opposed to the war in Iraq, nearly all the Republicans spoke about the importance of not abandoning Iraq before it has been stabilized -- and defended the decision to invade in the first place. "Absolutely the right thing to do," said Rudy Giuliani. Where Democrats called for ever grander and more expensive government health-insurance schemes, the Republicans called unambiguously for a freer market in healthcare. California Representative Duncan Hunter pointed out that 80 percent of the world's miracle drugs are developed in the United States because of a free enterprise system that encourages pharmaceutical companies to take expensive risks. "Maybe they drill three dry holes in trying to produce a good drug that will save somebody's lives," he said. "Then they hit the jackpot and they produce something that will save people and help their health."
On topics large and small -- gays in the military, making English the official US language, using nuclear weapons to keep Iran from getting the bomb, even the proper role for former presidents -- the differences between the parties came through, stark and unmistakable. If this week's debates are a preview of coming attractions, the 2008 campaign will be very divisive, and deeply consequential.