Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Race Flap Demonstrates Democrats' Skill for Self-Destructing

A friend of mine frequently anguishes that the goalie of his favorite hockey team, the San Jose Sharks, has a penchant for blowing leads late in games. I can relate. No, I'm not a Sharks fan. My team, the New York Islanders, is one of the few squads left in the league with a perfect record when leading after two periods. I feel my friend's pain because I am a Democrat who wants to see a member of my party elected to the White House in November.

How are the Sharks and the Democrats linked? Easy. Like the Sharks, the Democrats went into the third period of the presidential campaign with a big lead, thanks to the incompetency of the Bush presidency. On the July 29, 2007 edition of "Meet the Press," Tim Russert showed two polls, both of which demonstrated that Americans preferred a generic Democrat to a generic Republican by overwhelming margins (51% to 27% in one, 49% to 38% in the other). And yet, much like the Sharks, the Democrats have not done what they needed to do to hold their lead.

The result of yesterday's Michigan Democratic primary was just the latest low moment for the party. Barack Obama and John Edwards were not on the ballot, having withdrawn because Michigan moved up the date of the vote in violation of the rules of the Democratic National Committee. So, Clinton ran unopposed (unless you consider Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, and the out-of-the race Chris Dodd opponents), and yet she only managed to secure 55 percent of the vote.

Yes, Clinton was barely able to get more than a simple majority in a Soviet-style contest with no opposition. If she cant' get more than 55 percent in a Democrats-only vote while running against herself, how can she be expected to win a general election that includes an actual human being as an opponent?

Rather than casting a ballot for the former first lady or staying home because their candidate was not in the race, 40 percent of Michigan Democrats voted for "uncommitted." What prompted so many of the party faithful to turn out for an election to, in effect, say "none of the above"? Well, here's a clue: According to CNN, polls showed that 70 percent of African-American voters chose to vote for nobody over Clinton.

Hillary Clinton, the wife of the man routinely called "the first black president," and a woman despised by conservatives for being the living, breathing embodiment of 1960s-era liberalism, was rejected by black voters. The reason, of course, was the recent brouhaha over her comment that Martin Luther King Jr. could not have passed the Civil Rights Act without Lyndon Johnson (apparent to anyone who took a seventh grade American government class), and Bill Clinton's characterization of Obama's portrayal of his opposition to the Iraq War as being stronger than Hillary Clinton's as a "fairy tale" in light of Obama's voting record (the quote was taken out of context and applied to Obama's whole campaign, rather than the one point). Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), a high-ranking African-American member of Congress and supporter of Clinton's campaign, had to step in and defend her.

Finally, the two candidates kissed and made up at the Democratic debate last night, pointing out the obvious that Clinton has supported civil rights her whole life, and, even more importantly, that such a stand is part of the fabric of the Democratic party. But the damage was done. Obama's decision to play the race card may be paying short-term benefits, as demonstrated by Clinton's embarrassing showing in Michigan and a Reuters/Zogby poll showing that Obama has cut Clinton's large national lead to virtually zero.

But, in the long run, who wins this battle of the Democratic titans over race? Clearly, the Republicans. I'm sure they were smiling like lottery winners watching Obama weaken Clinton, while also taking hits himself for introducing race into the debate (not exactly a move consistent with the "bringing everyone together" theme at the heart of his appeal to independents). I wouldn't be surprised if the campaign managers of the leading GOP contenders met in a secret basement location to split a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black to celebrate.

Much like the Sharks' goalie, the Democrats have turned a chance for victory into a potential disheartening defeat. How did it all happen?

I think you have to go back to the emergence of Clinton and Obama as the frontrunners. While the Democrats obviously don't do their homework, the Republicans seem to have a firmer grasp of the country's recent electoral history. As I've pointed out in several earlier articles, the American people have not sent a sitting U.S. senator or a blue state Democrat to the White House since 1960. So, it's not surprising that the party, with its self-destruction gene fully intact, elevated two blue state U.S. senators to the head of the field, while the GOP limited its choices to two governors and a mayor (of a city big enough to be a state), along with two U.S. senators (one sitting, the other out of the game for a couple of years), both of whom hail from red states and have special circumstances that allow them challenge the insider nature usually associated with their jobs by the electorate (John McCain is viewed as an independent maverick, and Fred Thompson starred in a hit television show).

You would think the Democrats would learn. After all, no southern Democrat has lost a presidential election since 1924 (John Davis of West Virginia), with the lone exception of Al Gore, who, it should be noted, came within a couple thousand hapless Palm Beach County senior citizens of winning, despite running one of the worst presidential campaigns ever. (Yes, I know, many of you will say Gore did win, in which case the point is even stronger.)

Meanwhile, since Barry Goldwater got trounced by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the GOP has not nominated a U.S. senator for the presidency, with the lone exception of Bob Dole's 1996 suicide mission against Bill Clinton, when even a reincarnated Abraham Lincoln would have had trouble unseating the popular incumbent (although it's doubtful Abe would have been able to secure the Republican nomination; after all, he was the commander in chief of Union forces during the Civil War, and the South wields a lot of power in the party). Democrats, meanwhile, think nothing of throwing out historically unelectable sitting senators (like John Kerry and George McGovern), blue staters (like Kerry, Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale), and terrible campaigners (all of the above).

Throw in Hillary Clinton's high negative ratings, and just in choosing its two frontrunners, the Democrats gave back most of the lead the party had over the GOP. That same July poll that showed voters overwhelmingly leaning towards Democrats bears that out. As I wrote in my July 31, 2007 article on Hillary Clinton's electability problems:

[A] generic Democrat defeated a generic Republican 51% to 27% and 49% to 38% in the two polls. However, when Clinton was matched up against Giuliani, he won in both polls, 49% to 46% and 49% to 44%. Obama did a bit better against Giuliani (winning in one poll 52% to 42% while losing in the other by a 49% to 45% margin), but still not well enough to make a Democratic voter confident.

While the generic Democrat buried the generic Republican, Clinton struggled in hypothetical head-to-head matchups with Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson. And while Obama did better, his numbers still paled when compared to the domination shown by a generic Democrat. (John McCain was not yet a factor in July, although the Reuters/Zogby poll now has him in front of the field nationally.)

And what's the only thing worse than having two blue state U.S. senators fighting for the nomination? How about two blue state U.S. senators tossing around allegations of racial insensitivity. Especially when the battle is so silly. Even putting aside Clinton's record on civil rights and her husband's status of being called by many "the first black president," the debate obscures that the Bush administration has been as hostile to African-American interests as any presidency since the advent of the civil rights moment, and the black community knows it. To many black Americans, Bush's complete lack of action after Hurricane Katrina was first and foremost about the administration not caring about African-Americans. It was common to hear claims that if the storm had struck a white neighborhood, the response would have been far more swift and decisive.

So at a time when the Democrats should be rallying African-Americans against the GOP, Obama chose to try and turn the community against a fellow Democrat. You could argue that, after all, it's only January, and by the time November rolls around, it will all be forgotten, regardless of who gets the nomination. But voters, regardless of race, will remember. To think that Clinton could win a general election without massive turnout from the black community is a fantasy. With her high disapproval ratings, she needs her base to come out in force. And Obama's decision to play the race card will hurt him dearly if he secures the nomination. His appeal is based on a platform of rising above the old political battles and bringing together all Americans to solve the country's problems. The strategy has been at the heart of his success with independents. How do you think his role in the race flap will play to those who embraced his theme of unity?

To go back to the hockey analogy, just by pushing Clinton and Obama to the front of the field, the Democrats gave back most of their third-period lead to the Republicans. And I'm afraid that Obama's decision to allow the race issue to take over the last few days has served to erase any advantage that was left.

The predicament of the Democrats is especially outrageous when you consider the current state of affairs thanks to the Bush administration: There is talk we may be in a recession, a report today showed inflation at its worst rate in 17 years, oil is nearly $100 a barrel, and stock prices are tumbling, not to mention the mess in Iraq, the ascension of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the recent bombing of an American target in Beirut.

An unpopular war, a failure to catch the original terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and a sagging economy. Not exactly the time you want to be running as the nominee of the incumbent party. And yet, it looks like the Democrats are doing everything they can to gift the election to the Republicans. I mean, instead of all this fighting, wouldn't it just be easier to hand the presidency to John McCain right now?

I understand my Sharks fan friend's aggravation when his team blows a late lead, but he should take solace in the fact that there is always another game a day or two away. My team won't get to play again until 2012, when they'll have another chance to self-destruct. Every Democrat should be required to read this list of the nominees and results from every U.S. presidential election. Maybe we'll learn from our errors and finally choose a winning candidate. If not, history will be ignored again, and we will end up with something like a Sen. Charles Schumer-Sen. Diane Feinstein ticket. I shouldn't joke. The party will probably read that pairing and say: "That's a great idea!"