Commentary Magazine


They Just Might Blow It

Hillary Clinton just jettisoned strategist Mark Penn from her campaign because Penn dared contemplate free trade. For a candidate who tries to sell herself as an extension of the Clintonian 90’s, such vigilance against centrism, financial or otherwise, speaks to a strange state of affairs for Democrats. Of course, Hillary and Obama have adopted rabidly anti-free trade postures. Why are these two candidates competing for the affections of the far Left when one of them will have to go up against a Republican centrist who garners praise from Democratic voters?

In the 2004 Presidential election, Democrat John Kerry made the fatal mistake of substituting outrage for ideology. Hoping to coast into the White House on a wave of anti-Iraq War sentiment, Kerry ran almost exclusively against George W. Bush, with no real positive policy vision of his own. Among Democrats, he wasn’t alone in thinking he had done all that was required to become president. On the eve of the election, Jimmy Breslin wrote of Kerry’s imminent victory, “I am so sure that I am not even going to bother to watch the results tonight.”

But Breslin was wrong and the results were indisputable: Bush and the war would have a second term. Amazingly, the failure wrought by Kerry’s method of campaign-framing didn’t deter Democrats. In the 2006 congressional races, Democrats once again failed to convey a chosen ideological path. There was no clear indication of an affinity for Clintonian centrism or for progressivism. Democratic Congressional hopefuls ran simply as the GOP alternative. They talked up small-ticket items like a raise in minimum wage, and offered a watery mash-up of ideologies in the form of the “first hundred hours” contract. This time it worked. 2005 saw the dashed hopes of the “Arab Spring.” By 2006, anti-Iraq and anti-Bush sentiment was strong enough to deliver a Democratic thumpin’ to Capitol Hill Republicans. The Democratic Party Leader may have been Howard Dean, but the pitch—to the extent there was one—was “blue dog” compromise. In short, the Democrats remained ideologically rudderless.

Having got Congress back without recourse to an ideological framework, Democrats saw no reason not to continue in this mode. Which brings us to 2008. Without ever having resolved the centrism-progressivism question, the Clinton-Obama race was to be determined by an issue outside of political ideology—namely, identity. It has become the white woman against the black man: as everyone repeatedly points out, their policy differences are incremental. Moreover, these policies are surprisingly far to the Left. This is because the Democrats, since 2004, have not figured out how to sell themselves to the general electorate. They are now playing endlessly to their own. In the identity battle–and in the overall warfare of this Democratic primary–Obama has all but won. While his impending victory has nothing to do with political ideology, the candidate himself comes equipped with a strong adherence to far-Left principles. This is how the Democrats have ended up with the most liberal potential presidential nominee since World War II.

The problem with this scenario is that modern Democratic presidents have come to office as centrists. Most of the Democrats who voted for Bill Clinton are more closely aligned with John McCain than with Barack Obama. If anything, the sudden shock of a far-Left liberal will scare a Democrat-inclined voter who’s never had to commit to a delineated political ideology. This is to say nothing of Republican voters and independents. Additionally, Barack Obama’s Iraq plan, when you try to nail it down, is no clearer today than John Kerry’s was four years ago. As brutal as this primary has been, the Democrats’ work is still all ahead of them.

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