WASHINGTON — Here is why the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination seems so peculiar: Political campaigns are normally about highlighting differences, but never have the philosophical distinctions among Democratic candidates been so small.

There’s a reason for this. “Sometimes,” Barack Obama said in an interview this week, “being in the wilderness focuses attention.”

The campaign’s daily back-and-forth has obscured the remarkable overlap among Democrats in their plans, proposals, themes and even rhetoric, particularly on domestic policy. The old splits that tore the party apart — “reformer” versus “regular,” “New Democrats” versus the “Old” kind, “pro-business” versus “pro-labor” — are nowhere to be seen.

Because the contest has been organized around personality and history rather than ideological passion, the presidential preferences of Democratic primary voters have been remarkably stable. But they also may prove to be fragile. Thus has Hillary Clinton maintained her steady and substantial lead in the national polls, but her advantage could be vulnerable to relatively small changes in the political environment.

There is no issue on which the convergence is more obvious or important than health care. As Obama says candidly, “The differences between my plan, Hillary’s plan and Edwards’ plan are relatively modest.”

This is a big change. When President Bill Clinton proposed health care reform in the early 1990s, Democrats were badly split and deeply mistrusted each other’s approaches. Fights among Democrats were nearly as responsible for the Clinton plan’s failure as opposition from Republicans.

Now, former advocates of Canadian-style single-payer plans, supporters of employer mandates, and pro-market reformers have come together around proposals for universal coverage that are resolutely prudent and incremental in the way they get there.

The same is true on taxes, Obama’s focus this week. Democrats are no longer spooked by the prospect of raising taxes because the increased concentration of income and wealth at the top of the class structure — and the sharp tax cuts on capital enacted under President Bush — would allow the government to collect a great deal of money by increasing taxes on a very narrow slice of the electorate.

Obama’s plan, issued on Tuesday, was a model for how any Democrat will approach the tax issue next year. He led not with his list of tax increases, but with $80 billion to $85 billion in tax cuts for middle- and lower-income workers, homeowners who do not itemize their deductions, and senior citizens with annual incomes of less than $50,000. He also proposed simplifying filing for non-itemizing taxpayers.

Obama would pay for this by raising taxes on dividends and capital gains — but only for those in the top tax bracket — and by closing down loopholes in the tax code that benefit very particular (and mostly corporate) interests.

His speech outlining his plan was itself evidence of the year’s rhetorical cross-pollination: Not once but twice did Obama borrow a signature John Edwards reference point by arguing that “we’ve lost the balance between work and wealth.”

In the interview after his speech, Obama freely acknowledged that his ideas build on a consensus. “Democrats were so scared of the tax issue that they got steamrolled on some very bad policy,” he said. “My hope is that Democrats have regained their voice and lay out a case not for confiscatory taxes that get in the way of economic growth, but for policies that are sensible and fair.”

Note that caveat about “confiscatory taxes.” The new Democratic populism is carefully tempered. “We don’t resent people who are doing well,” Obama insisted.

Notice also how carefully Obama weaves the old and the new — and here again, his approach is more typical than atypical inside his party. “Over the last seven or eight years,” he says, “Democrats have recognized that the economy is out of balance and it is not sufficient for us just to defend the old New Deal programs. We have to take those principles and adapt them to new times.”

In talking about how the party’s new consensus would not have been possible had Democrats not “fully wrung out the excesses of the ’60s,” Obama pays unprompted tribute to a leader who happens to be supporting one of his opponents. “Bill Clinton,” says Obama, “deserves some credit for breaking with some of those dogmas in the Democratic Party.”

Obama’s promise to transcend the Clinton-Bush years while subtly presenting himself as Bill Clinton’s true heir has been one of the central dramas of his candidacy since its inception. This underscores that the Democrats’ 2008 struggle is not about how to shape a new consensus, but over who can take charge of the one that already exists.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.