Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Divided They Stand

It is, in a way, almost appropriate that the final days of the struggle for the Democratic nomination have been marked by yet another fake Clinton scandal — the latest in a long line that goes all the way back to Whitewater.

This one, in case you missed it, involved an interview Hillary Clinton gave the editorial board of South Dakota’s Argus Leader, in which she tried to make a case for her continuing campaign by pointing out that nomination fights have often gone on into the summer. As one of her illustrations, she mentioned that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June.

It wasn’t the best example to use, but it’s absurd to suggest, as some Obama supporters immediately did, that Mrs. Clinton was making some kind of dark hint about Barack Obama’s future.

But then, it was equally absurd to portray Mrs. Clinton’s assertion that it took L.B.J.’s political skills to turn Martin Luther King’s vision into legislation as an example of politicizing race. Yet the claim that Mrs. Clinton was playing the race card, which was promoted by some Obama supporters as well as in a memo by a member of Mr. Obama’s staff, achieved wide currency.

Why does all this matter? Not for the nomination: Mr. Obama will be the Democratic nominee. But he has a problem: many grass-roots Clinton supporters feel that she has received unfair, even grotesque treatment. And the lingering bitterness from the primary campaign could cost Mr. Obama the White House.

To the extent that the general election is about the issues, Mr. Obama should have no trouble winning over former Clinton supporters, especially the white working-class voters he lost in the primaries. His health care plan is seriously deficient, but he will nonetheless be running on a far more worker-friendly platform than his opponent.

Indeed, John McCain has shed whatever maverick tendencies he may once have had, and become almost a caricature conservative — an advocate of lower taxes for the rich and corporations, a privatizer and shredder of the safety net.

But elections always involve emotions as well as issues, and there are some ominous signs in the polling data.

In Florida, in particular, the rolling estimate produced by the professionals at Pollster.com shows Mr. McCain running substantially ahead of Mr. Obama, even as he runs significantly behind Mrs. Clinton. Ohio also looks problematic, and Pennsylvania looks closer than it should. It’s true that head-to-head polls five months before the general election have a poor track record. But they certainly give reason to worry.

The point is that Mr. Obama may need those disgruntled Clinton supporters, lest he manage to lose in what ought to be a banner Democratic year.

So what should Mr. Obama and his supporters do?

Most immediately, they should realize that the continuing demonization of Mrs. Clinton serves nobody except Mr. McCain. One more trumped-up scandal won’t persuade the millions of voters who stuck with Mrs. Clinton despite incessant attacks on her character that she really was evil all along. But it might incline a few more of them to stay home in November.

Nor should Obama supporters dismiss Mrs. Clinton’s strength as a purely Appalachian phenomenon, with the implication that Clinton voters are just a bunch of hicks.

So what comes next?

Mrs. Clinton needs to do her part: she needs to be careful not to act as a spoiler during what’s left of the primary, she needs to bow out gracefully if, as seems almost certain, Mr. Obama receives the nod, and she needs to campaign strongly for the nominee once the convention is over. She has said she’ll do that, and there’s no reason to believe that she doesn’t mean it.

But mainly it’s up to Mr. Obama to deliver the unity he has always promised — starting with his own party.

One thing to do would be to make a gesture of respect for Democrats who voted in good faith by recognizing Florida’s primary votes — which at this point wouldn’t change the outcome of the nomination fight.

The only reason I can see for Obama supporters to oppose seating Florida is that it might let Mrs. Clinton claim that she received a majority of the popular vote. But which is more important — denying Mrs. Clinton bragging rights, or possibly forfeiting the general election?

What about offering Mrs. Clinton the vice presidency? If I were Mr. Obama, I’d do it. Adding Mrs. Clinton to the ticket — or at least making the offer — might help heal the wounds of an ugly primary fight.

Here’s the point: the nightmare Mr. Obama and his supporters should fear is that in an election year in which everything favors the Democrats, he will nonetheless manage to lose. He needs to do everything he can to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Post a Comment