Democrats Need Quick End to Infighting

May 7, 2008

Despite the beautiful spring weather Washington is now enjoying, the US capital feels very gloomy – at least for Democrats.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continue to bloody each other up and down the length of the country: the latest bouts take place this week in North Carolina and Indiana.

Obama has a persistent lead in the delegate count and the popular vote, but he’s taken some brutal hits recently. His problems connecting with working-class white voters were compounded by the appearance last week of the preening Jeremiah Wright at the National Press Club. With friends like Wright, Obama must be thinking, who needs Karl Rove?

The real problem for the Democrats is this: neither candidate has enough delegates to win, and both candidates have too much support to quit.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have chosen the best possible candidate from within their ranks: senator John McCain is a war hero with an impressive record, an independent bearing, and a sense of humour. As a leading Democratic foreign policy maker told me recently, the Democrats’ never-ending primary has given McCain a “free lane” and the Republican is taking the opportunity to build a national political machine to match his profile.

But before they empty their veins into the Potomac, Democrats should consider the positives.

First, they have some serious systemic advantages when it comes to the general election in November. No matter how much he tries to squirm away, McCain will find it difficult to detach himself from the legacy of President George Bush. That legacy is a deeply unpopular one. A CBS/New York Times poll earlier this month found that 81 per cent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, and 78 per cent believe things are worse today than they were five years ago. The Iraq War is rightly regarded as a colossal blunder, so McCain was probably unwise to admit he could envisage American GIs being deployed there for “a hundred” years.

Second, although Obama and Clinton may look a little punch-drunk now, either would be a formidable candidate in the general election. Obama has remarkable political skills and his candidacy appeals to the rich seam of American romanticism (a seam that is not found, by contrast, in the hard Australian soil). Clinton, on the other hand, is tougher than a Gurkha.

Finally, the early surrender of McCain’s opponents has concealed certain frailties of his candidacy. McCain has very considerable strengths, but he is also thin on a number of policy issues, notably anything to do with numbers. He is disliked by many Republicans, both in the leadership and in the base, which should affect the number of voters he can turn out. He may not have anyone as disastrous as Wright in his closet, but he has certainly been sighted with some supporters who will frighten the leader writers, such as John Bolton. And finally, he is old: he will be 72 by the time of the election; if he were twice elected, he would be 80 years old at the end of his second term. Perhaps that won’t matter, but it will if he has any more senior moments in the next six months. It did not instil confidence in March when the self-proclaimed national security candidate confused Shiite and Sunni extremists in Iraq.

None of this is to argue that the Democrats’ infighting is not hurting their cause. The bad blood was visible in a Gallup poll in March, which found nearly one in five Obama supporters claiming they would vote for McCain over Clinton, and almost one in three Clinton supporters saying they would turn out for McCain over Obama. The party has been split along the axes of race, gender and class.

But the eventual Democratic nominee need not be disabled by the nominating contest. It all depends on when the fight ends and the circumstances under which it ends. A quick resolution in the next month or so would leave plenty of time for reconciliation; a deadlocked convention in August may not. Democrats need to ensure that whichever way the result goes, it looks legitimate and democratic and the loser is prevailed upon to campaign effectively for the winner.

The Democrats’ success or failure in November still lies, to a reasonable degree, within their own gift.