In The Diaspora: Base brawl

The Democratic candidates represent two different strategies for recapturing the White House.

By SAMUEL FREEDMAN
May 15, 2008 12:53
In The Diaspora: Base brawl

sam freedman 88. (photo credit: )

As Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have stalked each other through five months of primaries, trading blows and taking wounds like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila, the candidates' strengths and weaknesses have been analyzed by the usual categories of race, gender, age and education. All that commentary has overlooked what could be the more lasting dividing line between them, or at least the one most relevant to the November result: their divergent visions of restoring the Democratic Party to power. For a moment, forget about Obama as the favorite of blacks and the professional class. And set aside the popularity of Clinton among women, Hispanics, and the white working class. Instead conceive of Obama as the embodiment of the "50-state strategy" and Clinton as the personification of "50 percent plus one." Within Democratic circles, the debate between those two approaches to regaining the White House and hanging on to a tenuous majority in Congress has been going on for far longer than the current campaign. "The different approach is evident in their entire campaigns," said Gerald Pomper, an emeritus professor of political science at Rutgers University. "Obama got his lead, and probable nomination, by developing organizations, spending money and making appeals to all - or almost all - states. This meant going into caucus states which tend to be in the West and other "red" states. Clinton ignored those states, thinking that a concentration on the larger, more industrial and competitive states would be enough. Her current argument that she is more "electable" is based on the old coalitions, the 50 percent plus one idea." FOR ISRAELIS accustomed to the mosaic nature of parliamentary politics, some background and a few definitions may be in order. In the American version of electoral democracy - a binary, either-or, zero-sum affair - the Democrats have languished in minority status for more than a generation. Only Bill Clinton's eight years in the White House interrupted a 28-year stretch of Republican presidents, starting with Ronald Reagan. Until the 2006 Congressional elections, the Republicans had controlled both the House and Senate for a dozen years since Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" insurgency triumphed. The Reagan realignment was so startling to Democrats, who had enjoyed majority status since Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, that the party went election after election futilely trying to make the arithmetic work the way it used to - an impossible task, given the defection of Southern whites and a pivotal share of Northern Catholics. In 2000 and even more so in 2004, George W. Bush under Karl Rove's tutelage made substantial headway among Hispanic voters as well. Bill Clinton's two elections hardly reversed the trend. He won with only a plurality of votes in 1992, thanks to Ross Perot playing the third-party gremlin on the Republican wing. Four years later, Clinton faced a feeble Bob Dole. And Clinton's politics of "triangulation," of denouncing big government and adopting conservative positions on welfare reform and free trade, left Congress in Republican hands. The prevailing question for Democrats became how to win again. One school of thought argued for fiercely holding the base of liberals, minorities and public-employee unions, winning just enough seats and electoral votes to achieve the magical "50 percent plus one." The strategy, though, left no margin for error; to borrow the billiards idiom, you had to "run the table." Losing even one essential state - Florida by Al Gore in 2000, Ohio by John Kerry in 2004 - meant losing the whole thing. THE UNSPOKEN codicil of "50 percent plus one" was to write off entire sections of the country, especially the South, where Republicans built their party from the grass roots by organizing through the Religious Right. The only successful Democrats in the region were blacks, and they made their own cynical bargain with the first President Bush's Justice Department, redrawing Congressional districts after the 1990 census in bizarre shapes to ensure a few safe black Democratic seats while turning over the larger number of districts to heavily white, securely Republican constituencies. Eventually, the failure of "50 percent plus one" to deliver what it promised led to a backlash. It came in the unlikely form of Howard Dean. Running for the presidential nomination in 2004, supposedly as the rock star of the online young and the anti-war Left, he said at one point: "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pick-up trucks." Dean was predictably pilloried for his supposed racism, but he actually had a point. His party could never return to majority status while abdicating all the so-called "red states," including the entire South. Several years later, as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Dean put the party's money where his mouth was, pouring more than $50 million into the newly christened "50-state strategy." During the 2006 campaign, the approach and the expense put Dean at odds with Rahm Emanuel, a Clinton alumnus, Chicago-area Congressman and keeper of the checkbook for the House Congressional Campaign Committee. Emanuel wanted to put the resources only into targeted races that Democrats could win. The surprising degree of success by the Democrats in 2006 did not settle the internal debate as much as delay a reckoning. Riding voter disgust against Republicans over both the Iraq War and ethics scandals, Democrats captured not only many of Emanuel's handpicked races but several that appeared to ratify the Dean strategy, especially with the election of Jim Webb as senator from Virginia. To believe this year's news, polls and conventional wisdom, the Democrats should have it even better. The economy has been staggered by the subprime mortgage crisis. The Iraq War, though stabilized, remains far from resolution. A Democrat recently won a special Congressional election in a strongly Republican district in Louisiana. Surveys show that more than 80% of Americans sampled say the country is headed in the wrong direction. BUT THE result is hardly pre-ordained. Of all the Republican aspirants, only John McCain refused to pander to the nativist lobby, meaning he has the chance to hold on to some reasonable portion of Hispanic voters, a key swing group. Barack Obama has been bruised up and Hillary Clinton's negative ratings rose higher as she delivered those bruises. And there still remains the unanswered question of how the Democrats will prosecute their fall campaign, both to win the White House and to hold their thin majorities in the House and Senate. Repeatedly, Hillary Clinton has peddled herself to voters, and to uncommitted Democratic superdelegates, as the candidate who won the base states of Ohio, California, New York and Pennsylvania. At the risk of dividing the party, she has emphasized her victories in the discredited primaries in Florida and Michigan. Refusing last week to drop out of the race, she pointedly called West Virginia, where she won this week's primary, a "swing state." It all adds up, at least in her calculations, to "50 percent plus one." Amid all the buzz about his blackness, meanwhile, Obama built his lead in delegates by out-organizing Clinton in the caucuses and primaries of states as largely white and traditionally Republican as Kansas, North Dakota and, coming up, Montana. He has outdrawn Clinton among independents and, in states with cross-over voting allowed in primaries, registered Republicans. Yet in recent weeks, after the Jeremiah Wright controversy and Clinton's adoption of a populist style, Obama's results have skewed increasingly along racial lines. He lost the white vote to Clinton by 30 percentage points in North Carolina and 15 in Indiana. Which, to at least one scholar and analyst, raises an intriguing scenario. "Obama's campaign has also exposed a serious vulnerability in the Dean strategy, namely [the belief] that the base is the Democrats' to keep," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. "This is no longer true. What we have seen in Obama is the potential for certain candidates to lose the base even while expanding the reach of the party. The 50-state strategy depended on Democrats' being able to assume victory in 'blue states.' The past two months of the campaign have shown this quite clearly with his inability to win the support of the traditional Democratic coalition. Something is going on, and it seems that a lot of Democrats are not happy with the frontrunner. "While Dean thinks about moving beyond Red/Blue America," Zelizer continued, "many Republicans are starting to think back to the Reagan era - when the GOP actually ate into the areas where Democrats were strongest. The irony would be if the Dean/Obama strategy ended up working - but for Republicans." www.samuelfreedman.com


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