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April 24, 2008

The 'Haunting of the Democrats'

Topics: Political News and commentaries

obama%20McGovern.jpgIf you missed reading this the other day, as I did, you should consider taking the time now to read Andrew O'Hehir's rather lengthy article at Salon.com, "The Haunting of the Democrats." Not only do I find his piece interesting and spot-on, I think his use of Marx's famous dictum is a nice touch - regardless of his intention, given that the reference to Marx is clearly appropriate to at least one of the two candidates, if not both.

[...] History, in Marx's famous dictum, tends to repeat itself: the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. So what do you call it the third time around? A bad sitcom? A bad marriage? A bad dream? All three of those seem like viable ways of describing the Democratic Party's current predicament, locked in an endless and self-destructive struggle with itself, like a would-be Buddhist penitent unable to atone for eons' worth of bad karma.

Even in the annals of Democratic ritual suicide, the 2008 campaign is something special: It's not just that the protracted and painful nomination struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton repeats all the classic themes of intra-Democratic conflict -- left vs. center, reformer vs. the Establishment, pragmatist vs. idealist, call it what you will -- up to and including the fact that the differences between the candidates are mainly semiotic rather than substantive.

In his recent Salon article, Michael Lind identifies the split between dueling Democratic wings of the 1950s, specifically between hard-headed pragmatist (and Cold War hawk) Harry Truman on one side and liberal idealist (and Cold War dove) Adlai Stevenson on the other. Like almost any comment anybody makes about this split, that's an invidious comparison, and Lind is clearly advocating one side of the equation. Truman won an election as the nominee of a divided party (against the odds) and Stevenson lost two of them (against even greater odds). But let's let that stand, since Lind's dating of the emergence of this division is clearly correct: The last president to command enthusiastic support from all sides of the Democratic coalition was Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Before this year's historic campaign, poisoned at the root by overt and ugly sexism and covert and coded racism, Democrats have never been asked to choose quite so nakedly which absolutely necessary demographic they would like to do without. Here is the question, a cynic might suggest, that the Democratic Party must answer this summer: Do we want to lose because we drove away blacks or because we drove away white women? (Recent polling data suggests another cynical question: Do we prefer the candidate Americans believe is a liar or the one they believe is a Muslim?)

We've all seen this movie before, whether we realize it or not. If we're not quite sure how it's going to end, the characters and situations all seem strangely familiar. Beginning with the debacle of 1968, every Democratic campaign for four decades has followed pretty much the same template, even if the labels have shifted with the tide. The quadrennial conflict between liberals and moderates, outsiders and insiders, let's-win-an-election realists and let's-save-our-party dreamers -- supply your own dichotomy here -- reflects the fatal uncertainty of a political party that lacks any clear constituency or ideological focus. Even as the Democratic Party encompasses the views of a plausible majority of the population, its unresolved internal struggles have time and again undermined its ability to win elections or (when it happens to stumble to victory) to govern effectively.

Take the time to read it all ...

As O'Hehir goes on to remind us, excluding the Jimmy Carter "Watergate election" of 1976, Democrats have elected just one president since LBJ. And while Bill Clinton's economy looks pretty good right about now, let's remember that he lost both houses of Congress halfway through his first term, was virtually paralyzed by scandal in his second, and drifted toward social policies slightly to the right of Richard Nixon's. Then there was his wife -- what was her name again? -- who botched the issue of national healthcare so badly that it's been off the table ever since. Incredibly, be it Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, Americans - Democrats in particular, appear to be going down the same road, once again.

Posted by Richard at April 24, 2008 6:53 PM



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