Friday, May 30, 2008

Will a Democratic Party split help McCain invade Iran win in November?

I mentioned in the previous post that several commentators who often get things right are starting to talk about possibility of a Democratic Party split that could damage the nominee's chances in November: Jules Witcover (Explanations for Hillary's Plight TMS Features 05/28/08), Joan Walsh (A new low in Clinton bashing Salon 05/27/08) and Gene Lyons (Infighting threatens Democratic Party Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 05/28/08).

This hasn't worried me that much before now. And I still don't think that a lot of primary voters will decide to stay home just out of spite over who gets the nomination. But if either Clinton's or Obama's donors and local activists decide to take a pass on actively getting involved in the general election campaign, the effect could be the same.

Lyons, always well attuned to the world-historic dysfunction of our Establishment press puts it this way:

The political tragedy of 2008 would be if, in making history, the Democratic party tore itself apart. The potential exists for a schism between two of the party’s most loyal and enduring constituencies: African Americans, and blue-collar white voters in what was once the nation's industrial heartland along the Ohio River. Far more than the White House could be lost in November. Equally clear is that many in our esteemed national news media would enjoy helping that breakup happen. With incomes rivaling those of reserve infielders and egos inflated by TV celebrity, the courtiers, courtesans and character assassins of the imperial Washington press deem themselves America's rightful ruling class. Many no longer deny taking sides; at times, they’re even boastful. (my emphasis)
But even with a press corps as wrecked as ours, we can't blame everything on them.

Walsh - who did a really good job on Hardball this week, by the way - summarizes the grievances between the Clinton and Obama camps:

Thanks to my long weekend, I could probably get away without addressing the controversy over Clinton's RFK remarks, which is finally dying down. But I think this is an important and disturbing issue for Democrats. Criticize Clinton's vote to authorize the Iraq war, her pandering on the gas tax holiday, her lame remarks about "hardworking Americans, white Americans," her response to Obama's "bitter" remarks, her lackluster campaign strategy coming into 2008. I've criticized all of that, and more. But to argue that she was suggesting she's staying in the race because Obama might be assassinated -- even after both Clinton, and the journalists who interviewed her, said her reference was to RFK's June campaign, not to his heartbreaking murder -- requires either a special kind of paranoia or venal political opportunism.

I understand the fears many people have about Obama's safety; given our country's tragic history, they are real and understandable. Suggesting Clinton was trying to play on such fears is different. Throughout this long campaign the Clintons have been turned into a vile caricature: amoral, power-mad narcissists who are not beyond using racism and even worries about Obama's safety to press their political cause. I've criticized both Clintons repeatedly in the pages of Salon for over 10 years, but it's really time to say: Enough.

For several months I've found myself bothered by a double standard in both the behavior and the media coverage of the Obama campaign, as supposedly representing a new kind of clean, post-partisan politics, by contrast with the dirty old win-at-any-cost Clintons. Hardball Obama campaign tactics -- David Axelrod partly blaming Clinton for Benazir Bhutto's death; the intimidation of Clinton voters by a pro-Obama union in Nevada (to be fair, some Obama supporters claimed intimidation by Clinton forces, too); the campaign's infamous South Carolina race memo (prepared before Bill Clinton made his dumb Jesse Jackson remark); the multiple "Harry and Louise" mailers distorting Clinton's healthcare proposal; not to mention ties between Obama, Axelrod and the Exelon Corp., even as Obama is touting his lobbyist-free campaign. Nothing seems to stick to Obama; he's Teflon.
But one thing this has shown us is that Obama is willing to fight. Which is what the Dems need to win in November. And that has always been my biggest worry about him, that he would go out there with a lot of happy talk about a postpartisan world and lose to McCain.

But Obama wasn't Teflon in the media's treatment of him during the height of the Jeremiah Wright flap. And the relatively favorable treatment he's gotten compared to Clinton can't be expected to continue. The press corps has a special, pathological hatred of the Clintons. Obama is unlikely to get the kind of flak from the press corps as she gets. But he will face a different media environment once he secures the nomination. And he'll need those Clinton supporters defending him against press trashing with goofy "scripts" about him. Like the insane little flap this week over the fact that Obama mentioned that his great-uncler had been part of liberated "Auschwitz", when he should have said "Buchenwald". That one didn't get much traction. But when Vile Hillary is out of the way, our punditocracy will be scraping for items like that to flog as though they were major scandals.

Witcover sums up the state of the Democratic contest to date, observing that the Clinton campaign "was outfoxed by the Barack Obama strategy of organizing fiercely in caucus states as well as in primaries, and ... failed to grasp the significance of the proportional allocation of delegates in every state."

He mentions the issue of sexism, including this example: "Occasional crowd signs calling on her to 'Shut Up and Make Me a Ham Sandwich' and other variations are cited as evidence of the sexism." He points out that she has also benefited from a strong women's vote, concluding, "It would be a stretch to assume all of that opposition is because she is a woman."

I'd have to say Witcover slipped into conventional press mode there, in that he turned a blind eye to the fact that she and her campaign, as well as many liberal observers, have called particular attention to her treatment by the press which has resulted in hostile coverage. Like the media crew on Meet the Press this past Sunday, he talks about the controversy in terms of sexism among voters.

But this is a fair observation, which gets to the question of her electability:

Against those voters who find her too tough for their liking, there are millions, particularly among women, whose admiration for her has deepened as she has shown herself to be not only a most articulate exponent of her views but also an incredibly tenacious fighter.
Many, many Democrats are looking to see the Party slam the Republicans and the Establishment press this year, and not let our candidate be Swift Boated to defeat and put John McCain in to start a war with Iran and press forward in Iraq to a even bigger disaster. Clinton fights. And lots of Democrats respect her for it, even if they (we) didn't entirely like some of the ways she went about it, as Joan Walsh noted.

Witcover takes a studied position on that flap. He puts it mildly, but it's clear he thinks that the interpretation that she was deliberately suggesting that she would be glad if somebody knocked off Obama is way off base:

[She made a] misstep [in[ the way, in reminding voters of the history of some past primary campaigns extending into June, she twice cited not just her husband's 1992 campaign but Robert F. Kennedy's run in 1968. If she had said only that, it's unlikely any fuss would have resulted.

But in a most inartful way, she unnecessarily noted his assassination. The blogosphere immediately pounced, drawing implications that she must have been alluding to rumored threats to Obama, as a way the nomination might yet fall to her. ...

It's hard to conceive that a woman as politically astute as Hillary Clinton would intentionally invite such an insensitive impression. Obama himself said he took her at her word that she intended nothing political about the remark, and RFK's own namesake son also absolved her of such intent. ...

The political world is awhirl about whether this thoughtless reference will be the last straw for uncommitted superdelegates, sending them rushing in repulsion from Clinton over to Obama's camp. If so, it will be a most unfortunate coda to the long Democratic presidential race, and another obstacle to the party's hope to emerge from it with genuine unity. (my emphasis)
Maybe I should be a bit harsher about Witcover's description of the controversy. It wasn't just "the blogosphere", it was virtually the entire press pack that "immediately pounced". In fact, my understanding is that the New York Post first offered up the hostile spin on her remark, and the Obama campaign promoted it by e-mailing it to reporters. As Walsh says:

I couldn't believe this became the weekend's hottest political issue. I couldn't believe Keith Olbermann did a special comment on it (which I really couldn't believe was also widely circulated via e-mail by the Obama campaign). I couldn't believe that only George Stephanopoulos took the time to scrutinize and question the judgment behind the Obama campaign's political use of what was at worst bad phrasing on Clinton's part.
Given the over-the-top trashing that Clinton got from most of our sad excuse for a press core, Witcover's measured description of the thing stands out as an island of decency in a sea of Timmy Russerts.

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