Charles Krauthammer claims Barack Obama isn't really a uniter because, unlike John McCain, he hasn't risked his career reaching across the aisle on tough issues like judicial filibusters, warrantless wiretaps and immigration reform. And Krauthammer says Obama's claim to have transcended racial divides does not mean he's bridging other differences, since according to the National Journal, Obama has the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate -- a distinction previously held by the Democrats' last nominee, John Kerry.
But beyond all that, conservatives insist it's not possible for Democrats to transcend differences, since special interests and identity politics are at the heart of what it means to be a Democrat. Conservatives say they are the ones who can best unite the country, since their principles are not founded on group grievances and victimhood but hold true for everyone. Let's explore whether this is true.
According to conservatives, liberals believe it is the duty of strong centralized government to redistribute income and take other actions that create a more just society. This duty justifies, for example, steeply graduated income tax rates and race or gender based affirmative action.
By contrast, conservatives say they are the true liberals, as that term was understood by our Founding Fathers. Liberalism in the 18th century sought to secure personal liberty by establishing limited government.
Now hold on. Conservatives must concede that many 18th century liberals defined liberty in terms of property rights, and not everyone (by a long shot) owned or was even allowed to own property. Millions of slaves were property, one of our country's original sins, along with the mistreatment of Native Americans and women.
Still, in the two centuries since our founding, America has come a long way toward righting those wrongs. Conservatives ask how much longer African-Americans, Indians, and women -- or for that matter farmers, union members, lawyers or any other interest group - should be considered discrete constituencies entitled to special treatment. Conservatives contend that excessive government intervention is actually self-defeating, since it creates dependency and undermines personal responsibility.
Democrats rightly respond that the Republican Party is also made up of special interests. And they are surely right. But is this due to conviction or corruption? Is the GOP true to its principles when it caters to those interests? Let's examine two of the most prominent: businesses demanding tax breaks and social conservatives seeking to reverse abortion rights.
The first is easy. There is nothing conservative about politicians who, for love or money, pass the loopholes and dispensations that make our tax code a bloated monstrosity.
The harder question is how far government should go in using tax breaks to advance social policies. Charitable deductions support good causes. The mortgage interest deduction expands home ownership. Who could argue with either goal? Well, conservatives of a libertarian stripe argue that tax revenue should directly fund only government services, and not indirectly support unregulated charities. And libertarians say the mortgage interest deduction discriminates against renters.
More broadly, conservatives and libertarians insist that government should not pick winners and losers. Giving politicians the power to do that fosters abuse and limitless government. That's why so many conservatives favor moving toward a flat tax with few if any deductions. The rich, however defined, would still pay the bulk of income taxes, since they earn more, and they would not be able to wriggle out of paying their fair share by deducting highly questionable business expenses and the like. Conservatives (as distinct from many Republican as well as Democratic politicians) also want to prevent politicians from continuing to trade tax breaks for campaign contributions and votes.
For the same reasons, consistent conservatives oppose earmarks - lawmakers' pet projects tacked onto omnibus spending bills without any hearings. A key reason Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006 - besides sex scandals - is their refusal to rein in spending.
But if conservatives are not being conservative when they pass tax breaks and earmarks, what about when they oppose a woman's right to have an abortion? That right would seem to be in line with libertarian principles. But is it? Conservatives say the way abortion became a constitutional right should worry liberals and libertarians alike.
In the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court found an abortion right stemming from the privacy right that had been recognized only eight years before in Griswold v. Connecticut, which upheld a married couple's right to buy condoms. Supporters of Roe said it followed in the tradition of Brown v. Board of Education, but there was a crucial difference. Construing post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution that explicitly recognized equal rights for all races, the high court in Brown held that schools separated by race could not be equal. Though terribly belated, this was a straightforward application of the law. By contrast, Roe v. Wade raised a metaphysical question that had never been settled: when does life begin?
In 1973, individual states - which used to be called the "laboratories of democracy" - were still debating this issue. Abortions were legal in some states but outlawed in others. Any consensus that might have evolved among the states was cut short by Roe, which set up an elaborate trimester system to determine when a pregnant woman's rights prevailed over any rights that might belong to a fetus. Critics branded this judicial legislation.
What is the conservative response? Some call for the appointment of justices who will reverse Roe v. Wade. That would return the matter to the states. One problem with this for social conservatives is that conservative justices also honor precedent, and might find that Roe is now settled law. Another is that prospective judges should not be questioned about how they would decide future cases.
Other conservatives propose a constitutional amendment banning abortions (usually with certain exceptions). They argue that the amendment process is demanding and truly democratic -- and appropriate for matters that remain controversial.
So where does all this leave us regarding the ability of liberals or conservatives to transcend differences? Conservatives say liberals use government to impose outcomes that favor their aggrieved interest groups. Liberals claim conservatives use government to cement their established dominance.
You could say it's a battle between haves and have nots. Or you could say these competing philosophies present different visions of how everyone in America and indeed the world can seek a better life. What you decide may well decide the November election.