Campaign Crawlers

The Dems’ Difficulty: A Contest for the Liberal Vote

Let Hillary and Obama squabble all they want -- they've got a bigger problem to worry about.

By 4.3.08

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I have lost count of the number of times commentators have hinted that Hillary Clinton should get out of the race. The ring-leader, for a while, seemed to be New York Times columnist David Brooks. Has he signed on as an unpaid adviser to the Democratic Party? Probably not, but he is really concerned that the Democrats are "probably going to have to endure another three months of daily sniping." Meanwhile old John McCain is getting a free ride! What worries Brooks is that the voters are being subjected to "squabbling every day," and that will only turn the voters off and hurt the Democrats.

Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post likened the "bickering" between Hillary and Obama to "cranky toddlers" in the midst of a "long hot car ride." Again, to the detriment of the Democrats.

I have a rather different take on this. I think that the protracted contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will indeed hurt the Democrats in November. But not for the reasons given. There is something rather more important than "bickering," and no one seems to have pointed it out.

Notice, incidentally that the press bias is always in Obama's favor. Their hints and nudges are always directed against Hillary, although rarely do these critics bring up the embarrassment of her Bosnia sniper-fire "misstatement."

Those with long memories, extending back all of four months, may recall that it was the Republicans who were said to be facing a grueling contest. Their ding-dong battle could continue until the nominating convention, we were told, leaving all contenders exhausted. And the voters would weary of their sniping and squabbling. So this would help the Democrats. They would turn with relief to their heiress apparent, who no doubt would enjoy an untroubled passage to her expected coronation.

I thought at the time that it was indeed likely that the GOP battle would be protracted. But this would not necessarily hurt the party, I also guessed. The GOP would be revealed as the party of ideas, or at least the party of variety (as of course it is, compared to the Dems). They had a roster of candidates who really did espouse a wide spectrum of ideas -- from the libertarian Ron Paul, to the anti-immigrant Tom Tancredo, to the changeable Mitt Romney, to the unpredictable John McCain. And so on. The variety of their positions might well be more interesting to voters that the liberal monotone of the Democrats.

But that is not the way things turned out. The Republicans closed ranks behind one candidate while the Democrats remain evenly divided between two. Nonetheless, I do accept that the present conventional wisdom -- that this division will hurt the Democrats -- is likely to prove correct in the end. But not for the reasons given.

Contrary to what the media think, people really don't mind "squabbling" and "bickering." They probably hardly even notice it. I agree with the New Republic's Peter Beinart, who said on Meet the Press the other day that the protracted contest may in some respects have actually strengthened Obama at least; I mean strengthened in the sense of battle-hardened. (Hillary, one senses, already came sufficiently hardened to this or any other battle; which is why her one moment of appeal to voters was the time when she showed a certain feminine softness.)

The real problem for the Democrats is that the contest between their two finalists shows them not to be the party of ideas but the party of a single idea: Liberalism -- more government across the board; more taxes, more spending, more regulation. The media find it hard or impossible to point this out because that is their bias too. What's not to like about a party dominated by two liberals? That certainly is the New York Times' position.

Hillary tends to be depicted as the moderate, the "old" Democrat. I am not at all sure that she is, but both candidates must continue pitching themselves to Democratic primary voters, dominated by liberal activists. Obama and Clinton keep on having to burnish their liberal credentials; they push each other to the left: "My progressive positions are more progressive than your positions," and so on.

I'm not sure the voters will "tire" of this, but it is increasingly likely that they will notice it. Especially if it does indeed go on for another three months. It will therefore become difficult for the ultimate victor to portray him- or herself as anything other than a liberal. And liberal nominees tend not to do well in the general election. Peter Wehner, a former assistant to President Bush, remarked in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday ("Obama and the 'L' Word") that Obama "needs to inoculate himself against the claim that he's a liberal," as this has been for the last quarter century "the most effective charge made by Republicans against Democrats."

Maybe Obama indeed would like to move to the center. Obviously, he has done more than enough to burnish his leftist credentials by associating himself with extremists like Pastor Wright. But the problem for him is that the dynamics of the Democrats' nominating process makes it difficult for him to do this.

The problem for the Democrats is not that they are locked into an enduring contest of bickers and squabbles, but an enduring contest for the allegiance of liberal activists.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).