The other night I got an irate e-mail from an old acquaintance on the left. He was furious because I’d quipped in an interview that if people didn’t stop making sexist comments about Hillary Clinton, I might just have to vote for her. Maybe he missed the ironic conditional: he thought I supported her. He went on to excoriate Clinton: she is militaristic and ultranationalistic; she would carry on Bush’s policy of a long-term occupation of Iraq, define foreign policy around the “war on terror,” support the hard-liners in Israel and promote the centrist-Democratic left-smashing ideology of the DLC. We need to rebuild the left, he concluded, and that’s why he was supporting… Barack Obama.

If you get your news from the progressive media, especially the web, you would think large fields of ideological difference separate Clinton, Obama and Edwards. I haven’t decided who I’m voting for. I would love to see a Democratic woman President; I’m not ashamed to say that. I’d love to see a Democratic black President too. But obviously–I shouldn’t have to say this–what matters is what the candidates stand for and to whom they’ll be beholden if elected. My problem is, the three don’t look so far apart to me–certainly not enough to justify demonizing one and canonizing another, as my left-wing correspondent does. The differences seem more like branding: the strong, experienced woman; the black (but not too black) inspirer of hope; the hands-on economic populist crusader. Or if you prefer, the evil pro-corporate phony and everyone else. No sooner had Clinton announced her healthcare plan, for example, than my colleague John Nichols denounced it as a gift to the insurance industry. Fair enough, but this is the same healthcare plan that Elizabeth Edwards said with some annoyance was copied from the one her husband–the man who cares about poor people–had put forward months before. Obama’s plan is similar. Likewise, on the same day that my colleague Laura Flanders wrote that an Obama campaign rally in New York City was buzzing with progressive energy, I read in the New York Times about his attempt to woo McCain voters in New Hampshire. Both these things can be true–but isn’t being all things to all people a bit, well, Clintonian?

How real are the differences among the top three? Let’s take a look. All three candidates want to disengage troops from Iraq while maintaining some kind of military handle on the place. If getting all the troops out ASAP is your top priority, vote for Richardson, Kucinich or Gravel. All of the top three are largely uncritical of Israel (Clinton, in fact, voiced support for a Palestinian state in 1998 and was creamed for it). Clinton probably is a shade more hawkish than the others, but all three buy the trope of the “war on terror”–in August, Obama even said he would strike Pakistan if that’s what it took to capture Osama bin Laden. Maybe that was a slip or a mini-pander to 9/11 voters (well, not so mini if you’re a Pakistani). He has since made more peaceful noises and followed Edwards in supporting the global abolition of nuclear weapons (a position originally put forward by Ronald Reagan, and now by Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn and George Shultz, so let’s not get carried away). On domestic policy, the three have similar boilerplatish positions on education and immigration; all three are prochoice without qualifications. Hurray! But, although nearly three in ten Americans are poor or near-poor, only Edwards has made a campaign issue out of social and economic inequality. Only Edwards seems to grasp the significance of our widening class divisions. Obama, indeed, has suggested he’ll reduce taxes on “the middle class,” which may be code for “expect no big government initiatives.”

How tied in are the top three with corporations and Wall Street? Hillary Clinton is notoriously unapologetic about receiving large donations from wealthy interests. But Obama has received a lot of corporate and Wall Street money too–in fact, he’s received more money from hedge funds than Clinton. Edwards has refused to accept donations from lobbyists (Obama soon followed his example), but this could be merely a nice piece of branding: there are plenty of ways for the interest groups lobbyists represent to put favors in the favor bank besides writing a check to the candidate.

Right now Obama, not antipoverty Edwards, has the progressive halo, even though his stands on the issues don’t place him clearly to the left of his main rivals. I don’t know how many people have mentioned to me that he spent four years as a community organizer. That’s great, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us where he’s going. After all, you would not have predicted from Clinton’s work for the Children’s Defense Fund and her many close friendships in the liberal policy world–or even her strong speeches in support of women’s rights around the globe as First Lady–that she would favor the Republican-created welfare reform bill her husband signed in 1996.

If the primary were today, I might vote for Edwards, even though he sometimes seems a bit like a hologram. Or I might go for the candidate I actually agree with, Dennis Kucinich, or the one who seems the most human, Mike Gravel. However, there are still nearly four endless months to slog through: I could be won over by a candidate who just stands up and speaks his or her mind without calculating the effect of every syllable on some indecisive mini-demographic. Someone who will speak frankly about the disaster that is the war on drugs, say, or call for free college education. I would even vote for a candidate who refuses to name a favorite Bible passage on national television. “Tim,” this candidate might say, “I’d be happy to talk Scripture with you over a cup of coffee after the show, but in this country religion is private and personal, and if I’m elected I’ll keep it that way.” There, would-be Presidents of America, was that so hard?

* * *

Random House has just published my new book, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories. It’s a collection of personal essays, only two of which have been previously published (in The New Yorker), about love, sex, betrayal, motherhood, divorce, proofreading pornography and the decline and fall of practically everything, including myself.