Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Democrats Act to Blow Another Presidential Election

I asked my father during the 1976 presidential primaries and caucuses what the difference was between Democrats and Republicans. He was able to sum it up briefly for my nine-year-old mind: Democrats think government can be used to solve the people's problems, while Republicans think less government and more support of business is the correct way to move the country forward.

If a nine-year-old asked me the same question now, my instinct would be to describe the parties this way: Republicans do a great job of getting elected but a poor job of governing, while Democrats are so inept at choosing candidates, they can find a way to lose any presidential election, no matter how much the country's condition skews in their favor. As a registered Democrat, I don't take joy in writing that description, but, sadly, a look at history has proven me correct.

Since 1976, the Democrats have won three presidential elections (Bill Clinton twice, partially thanks to Ross Perot siphoning votes from the Republicans, and Jimmy Carter in 1976, thanks to the post-Watergate mistrust of Republicans and a sagging economy), while the Republicans have won five times. In three of those instances, the Democrats blew legitimate chances of winning (not coincidentally, all three times, the opponent was named Bush). Twice it was due to the party picking a completely unelectable candidate (Michael Dukakis in 1988 and John Kerry in 2004), and once it was due to an ostensibly good candidate self-destructing on the campaign trail (Gore in 2000, with his indefensible, red-faced wander towards Bush during a nationally televised debate).

It's nice to see the Democrats finding a new and interesting way of throwing away a presidential election this year, despite the fact that conditions are even more favorable for the party than they were in 1988, 2000 and 2004.

When the Democratic presidential campaign began more than a year ago (it feels like it's been a decade), and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, two sitting U.S. Senators from very, very blue states, emerged as the front-runners, I was inconsolable. There is a lot of talk about these candidates making history (as the first woman or African-American to get a major party nomination for the presidency), but, to me, the elevation of these candidates demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of electoral history by the party. As I've written many times, the country has not put a sitting U.S. Senator in the White House since 1960, nor have they chosen a Democrat from a northern state since that election. Throw in how Clinton is (unfairly, I always say) disliked by so many voters and such a rallying point for conservatives, and I couldn't believe we were doing it again, picking candidates that, based on how Americans have voted in the last 44 years, were not going to win. I kept thinking, "We never, ever learn. When will Democrats figure out how to nominate electable candidates?"

But for 2008, we had a lot going for us that might make it possible for a Democrat to win despite the lessons of history. Bush's approval rating was hovering around the freezing point (Fahrenheit, although one wonders, based on Bush's performance, why it wasn't closer to the Celsius freezing mark), and the Republican choices seemed like an extremely motley crew. With John McCain left for dead based on problems in his campaign and early poll numbers, who would be a threat to the Democrats? The flip-flopping Mormon who would say anything to be elected? The pro-choice, pro-gay, anti-gun, thrice-married, dress-wearing former New York mayor whose approval rating on September 10, 2001, was remarkably close to Bush's current mark? The guy who played the D.A. on "Law and Order" and seemed to be comatose during the debates? After the shocking results in Iowa, would it be the former Arkansas governor/preacher who doesn't believe in evolution? There wasn't one in the bunch you could see winning in November.

But if you go back to my description of Republicans, what was the first thing I said? They know how to get elected. So none of the early leading nutjobs got the nomination. Instead, despite the hand-wringing of the right wing of the party, the GOP nomination went to the guy known for being two things: a war hero who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war and a maverick moderate who appeals to independents and right-leaning Democrats. (Let's put aside whether the second thing is true about McCain, because that's the way he is viewed by the American people.)

In other words, once again, the Republicans picked the most electable candidate they were offered.

And the Democrats? Well, as they say, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and after the results of the Ohio and Texas primaries yesterday, the Democrats have soundly flunked history.

See, despite picking two front-runners that, on paper, were unelectable, the Democrats early in the process stumbled onto a movement. In the way that McCain's perception as a maverick allows him to be seen as an outsider even though he sits in the U.S. Senate (viewed by a wary American electorate as the ultimate bastion of inside-Washington politics), Obama, too, could set himself apart, based on his age, race, record of activism, and brief amount of time in office. More importantly, Obama attracted young and new voters who had shunned the political process in the past and found a way to be perceived as nonpartisan, someone with appeal to moderates and even some Republicans.

After handing Obama victories in 11 straight contests, it looked like Democrats had finally learned their lesson. They had shunned the unelectable Clinton. (I've written numerous articles on why she is unelectable, so I won't repeat myself here. But if you're interested, you can check out my articles from July 2007, November 2007 and February 2008.) As importantly, they had found a charismatic candidate that had a chance to become a kind of movement. Someone who could reach beyond party lines and compete with McCain for moderate voters in swing states.

I thought maybe the Democrats had figured it all out. I should have known better. History has shown us that Democrats, sooner or later, will blow a presidential election, if given half a chance. And since Obama's last victory, that process has taken hold. First, Clinton went on the attack, pulling the campaign into the gutter in a way that will only serve McCain, who got to sit on the side and watch the carnage with a big smile on his face. (I discussed the long-term effects of Clinton's attacks in a February 29 article.)

And the voters of Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas put the final nail in the Democrats' coffin, handing victories to Clinton in those three states. Don't get me wrong, I fully understand that voters have a right to choose the candidate they think will do the best job in office. But, at the same time, there are consequences to votes, and the voters in Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas will have to live with those consequences. What are they?

Well, first, Clinton's wins demonstrate that she succeeded in tearing down Obama, slowing his momentum considerably and diminishing him in the eyes of the electorate at large. That was her goal, after all, and it seems to have worked. But this is a problem, no matter who eventually emerges with the nomination. If she manages to get the nod, it will mean, well, that she has to actually run against McCain in November. As I've argued again and again, Clinton would be a weaker candidate in the general election. (Again, if you want to read why Obama has a better chance against McCain, read my articles from July 2007, November 2007 and February 2008.)

And if Obama goes on to be the Democratic nominee, Clinton's successful attacks of the last two weeks will have only served to help McCain. In fact, McCain can even use Clinton's strategy as a road map, since, after all, it has been battle tested and proven effective against Obama. She has weakened Obama at a late stage after he established real momentum. Nobody who wants a Democrat to win in November should be happy about that.

More importantly, the Republicans (experts at winning elections, as always) have chosen their nominee and are now coming together and organizing against the Democrats, looking solely at November. Meanwhile, thanks to Clinton's victories in Ohio and Texas, the Democratic race goes on. And not just for another week or two. The next major primary is in Pennsylvania, which is on April 22, a full seven weeks away. That's nearly two months of Clinton and Obama attacking each other, all to the benefit of McCain.

Finally, and most importantly, Clinton's wins in Ohio and Texas bring into play an election decided by superdelegates, which could rip the party to shreds. The dirty little secret behind Clinton's wins is that she only picked up between 10 and 15 delegates and still trails Obama by more than 100 elected delegates. Barring an Obama collapse in the coming months, even with her big victories in Ohio and Texas, there is virtually no way Clinton can finish with more elected delegates than Obama. So the only way she will be able to secure the nomination will be through the superdelegates, who are unelected party big shots who can vote for any candidate they choose at the convention.

If the Democratic race goes to the convention, and the nomination is given to a candidate who earned fewer voted delegates, all thanks to the largess of party insiders, the result will be catastrophic. The message such a turn of events would send to the country would only reinforce everything Americans hate about politicians (and, not incidentally, fear about Hillary Clinton), that they are self-interested and out of touch with the average citizen. It would put the Democrats on the same playing field as the Republicans' conduct in the aftermath of the 2000 election.

Maybe even worse would be the loss of morale and energy of the millions of people who turned out to vote for Obama. If your candidate wins fewer elected delegates, it's much easier to support the winner in November. But what if your candidate actually got more votes but got shafted? Talk about a problem energizing your base.

Mark my words. If Obama wins more elected delegates, but superdelegates give the nomination to Clinton, the Democratic party will descend into crisis. People will change their registrations in protest, stay at home on election day, or even vote for McCain. The result will be a comfortable win for McCain in November.

Maybe that's something that the Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas Democrats who voted for Clinton should think about as they go to sleep tonight. And it's certainly something that the Democratic voters in Pennsylvania should think of, as well as party members in the upcoming states of Wyoming, Mississippi, Guam (yes, Guam has a primary and nine delegates to the convention), Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, Montana, South Dakota, and Puerto Rico (if things have not been sorted out by the time Puerto Rico votes on June 7, heaven help the Democrats).

I don't think any Democrat wants to see George W. Bush in a John McCain mask running the country for the next four years. But if things continue on this path, Clinton's 2008 "comeback" might just join Dukakis, Gore and Kerry on the list of Democratic debacles.

If I'm asked to explain to someone the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, I'd rather use my father's explanation than mine. Unfortunately, Democratic primary voters aren't leaving me with that option.