Democratic Primary Is Damaging to Clinton, Obama and Country

Posted March 31, 2008 at 4:41pm

This year’s Democratic Party nominating process has become a depressing spectacle. Not long ago, party leaders were crowing about their choice of two “historic candidates” who would lead the party to victory in November. Today, the contest has devolved into a prima facie case of the perils of gender and race politics.

[IMGCAP(1)]In three short months, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) have managed to take lemonade and turn it into lemons. They and their campaigns have created a deep and increasingly bitter divide within the Democratic Party, unfortunately along racial and gender lines.

But it also is unfortunate for the political process and for the country.

The candidacies of Clinton and Obama are proof of how far we have come in righting wrongs of the past. While Republicans may benefit from the nasty turn this campaign has taken, no one who cares about the country ought to revel in this kind of primary fight.

But one cannot ignore the irony of the situation. The Democratic Party, which has spent the past thirty years promoting identity politics and the policies that go with it, now finds itself being torn apart by the very candidates who represent those politics.

Yet, it is the Clinton and Obama camps that must take responsibility for the negative tone of this campaign. Obama has claimed the mantle of the first “post-racial” presidential candidate, but his close relationship with a pastor of undisputed racial animus and virulent anti-Americanism has put his own character and judgment into question.

The Clintons have played the race card as well, whether it was Bill Clinton’s comparison of Obama to Jesse Jackson after the South Carolina primary or various Hillary supporters raising questions about Obama’s electability. But the Obama campaign’s comparison of Geraldine Ferraro’s comments to those of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was equally cynical.

When it comes to gender, Clinton has tried to have it both ways. She cried in New Hampshire. In Ohio, she harshly scolded, “Shame on you, Barack Obama”; and in a tone reminiscent of the OK Corral, challenged him to “meet me in Ohio. Let’s have a debate about your tactics and your behavior on this campaign.”

In recent weeks, as Obama has sent out a parade of mostly male party leaders to call for her exit, Clinton and her supporters, have taken to characterizing the effort as the “boys” against the “girl” in the race.

But it was “sniper-gate” that illustrated her attempts to be both victim and take-charge leader at the same time. Playing for sympathy, she told several audiences the story of her 1996 trip to Bosnia, joking that in the White House there was a saying, “If a place was too small, too dangerous or too poor, send the first lady.”

But then, she proceeded to portray herself as a kind of “G.I. Jane” on a perilous mission for the president, dodging bullets on the tarmac as she dashed to the safety of the motorcade. Winston Churchill once talked of the Boer War saying, “There is nothing more exhilarating than being shot at without result.”

We all now know Mrs. Clinton was never under fire, but her tall tale definitely got results — just not the one she hoped for. As Sen. Clinton was trying to climb out of her self- imposed foxhole, the Obama camp went over the top comparing Bill Clinton to Joe McCarthy for a comment he made that they claimed questioned Obama’s patriotism.

Both candidates are to blame for the tenor of the campaign, and both candidates are beginning to pay a price with the voters.

In Gallup Poll daily tracking earlier in March, Obama beat McCain by 2 points, 46 percent to 44 percent. The most recent tracking, on March 29, shows a 5-point switch with McCain now beating Obama 47 percent to 44 percent. In the earlier poll, Clinton was leading McCain 47 percent to 45 percent. The newer numbers show McCain over Clinton, 48 percent to 44 percent. The poll had a 2-point error margin.

The most devastating numbers, however, are Gallup’s data showing that the bitterness between the Clinton and Obama voters could take a real toll in November. During polling March 7-22, a staggering 28 percent of Clinton voters and 19 percent of Obama supporters said they would vote for McCain if their candidate loses the nomination. Who are these voters?

Gallup found they are independents and conservative Democrats, the very swing voters who were the key components of Ronald Reagan’s winning majority coalition. It’s unlikely those numbers will remain that high. But the very fact that such a significant number of voters are willing to defect to the Republican nominee in this kind of negative political environment belies the argument that once the nomination process is over, the two Democratic candidates’ supporters will all come together in a Kumbaya moment.

Meanwhile, the Gallup Poll found McCain’s favorability had increased 11 points, reaching an eight-year high of 67 percent. The contrast between McCain and his potential rivals couldn’t be more stark.

Clinton and Obama have spent the past three weeks alternately sniping at each other or trying to explain one political problem after another. McCain has spent his time in more presidential endeavors, meeting with world leaders, giving major policy addresses and visiting the troops in Iraq. This week, voters will see his campaign focus on McCain’s lifetime of service to the country.

Obama and Clinton have given McCain an unexpected opportunity to reach voters with a positive message about himself, his hopes for the country and his solutions to the problems people care about. And this could go on for months.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.