Thursday, March 20, 2008


Back when there were two sets of primaries, I would sometimes ask my Democratic pals whether they wished sometimes that their candidates would argue with each other about matters of substance, since the contrast between the primaries, Republican and Democrat, was so stark.

On the Republican side, you had pro-life candidates and pro-choice, pro-war and anti-war, pro-Israel and pro-Arab. You had global warming alarmists and global warming skeptics. You had a governor (Romney) who had set up a state-run healthcare system and you had others who wanted the government completely out of the health business. You had Fair-taxers, flat-taxers, no-taxers and John McCain. You had guys who wanted a border fence with snarling dogs and guys who wanted to give them all drivers licenses and margaritas.

On the other side, they never seemed able to muster much of an argument about anything. National health care? Mandatory! Raise taxes? Of course! Lose the war? Absolutely! There were nuances, I suppose (some of which may have been lost on me), but there was no real disagreement in any of their stated positions on major issues and there have never been any debates about policy.

And once in a while, one of my Democratic pals would agree that it might be better, or at least more interesting, if one of their candidates would propose a different idea about abortion or affirmative action or gay marriage or taxes or terrorism or something. More common, however, was the view that the uniformity of opinion among Democrats was actually a wonderful thing. We're united, you see. We don't have to argue about these things. We all agree on what the country needs.

Of course, one can't help but wonder what Joe Lieberman or Zell Miller thinks of this supposed unity, and I also have a feeling I could find a Democrat or two who might have some reservations about tax increases or abortion or banning guns. But whether you call it a glorious unity or suppression of dissent, the absence of policy disputes created a problem far more serious than boring debates. It created a situation where the only basis on which Democrats can pick a candidate is identity politics.

And that is what has happened to the Democratic race, which has become a death spiral of race and gender and ethnic groupings in which neither side has the juice to kill off the other. Hillary's supporters are determined, and Obama's minions are not backing down either. And since the only disagreements between the two have been purely superficial ("I'm for change!" "No, I'm for real change!"), there is no rational basis on which a Hillary supporter can be persuaded to switch to Obama, or vice versa.

It's an argument no one can win because there has never been an argument. All that's ever happened is a sorting out of skin colors and private parts and income levels and religions. And it continues. You there, you with the dark complexion---over here, please. And you with the vagina and the sub-75K income---this way. Bitter union members with guns? Step over here. And you Jewish folks---sorry we have to ask, but are you the sort of Jews who go to temple every week or are you the kind who eat cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur? Because if you're the first kind, we're going to put you in Hillary's stack, but if you're the second, you go to Obama.

For those of us who think it's morally wrong to judge people on the basis of their skin color or their gonads, the spectacle is somewhat disgusting.

Still, somebody has to win, and it looks like it will be Obama, though how and when this will occur is still anybody's guess. His black/leftie/academic mojo seems a shade more potent than her female/union/take-your-vitamins brand. Also, of course, should he be denied, the spectre of rampaging black Democrats outside the convention in Denver is genuinely chilling. By contrast, when Hillary is finally dragged from the stage, any vision involving legions of outraged Geraldine Ferraros laying waste to a Starbucks is more difficult to conjure.

And so they slog on, slowly, toward Obama's seemingly inevitable nomination. And this inevitability too is a product of the straightjacket of race and gender and ethnicity in which the Democratic Party has voluntarily encased itself. Obama's candidacy has never been based in a political vision (since all the other candidates had the same vision), but rather on who he is and, by extension, who his supporters are. This means that ditching him now, even though his vulnerabilities in November have become apparent, would be more than a political disappointment for his minions, it would be a personal affront. It would be---RACISM!!! And we can't have that sort of thing in the Democratic Party, can we?

So it is, in this most Democratic of all election years, that the party is poised to nominate one of the very few Democrats who is capable of losing to the blathering mess that is John McCain. With six months left in this most supernatural of presidential elections, I don't presume to know the result. But looking at the map, it's hard to fathom where Obama is going to find 270 electoral votes.

Start with West Virginia, where Obama was shellacked in the recent primary. The last Democratic president who lost West Virginia in the general election was named Woodrow Wilson. It's almost impossible for a Democrat to be elected president without West Virginia, and Obama can't win there.

And the West Virginia problem is bigger than West Virginia, of course. Bitter, gun-totin', church-goin' Democrats can also be found in abundance in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky, all of which Obama lost and all of which are critical to a Democratic victory. (Kentucky loved Bill Clinton, by the way; they hate Obama.)

And then there's Florida, another critical state, which Obama lost handily in a record-turnout, perfectly fair primary that doesn't count. Jewish voters are deeply suspicious of a guy with links to Farrakhan (via Rev. Wright). Obama's desire to sit down for a chin-wag with Raoul Castro is not a popular position in Florida either.

In a general election, Obama is virtually certain to win New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, D.C., Illinois, Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii. That's 157 of the 270 he needs. Kerry also won Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, New Hampshire, Vermont, Delaware, Maryland and Maine, and many of these are likely to remain in the Democratic column. But Kerry lost. Not only must Obama retain all the states Kerry won (and places like Pennsylvania and Michigan won't be easy), he must expand the base elsewhere. As more is learned about his background, however, the trend seems to be heading in the opposite direction.

But Obama may recover. And McCain can blow it (as he, at times, seems determined to do). I have little faith in election predictions at this point, including my own. My point is that the politicizing of group identity is cancer for our democracy, and it's been a cancer for the Democratic Party. It's the sort of factionalism the founding fathers did everything in their power to prevent, and the Democratic Party is a troubling example of how far this destructive process has gone. When months of primaries and televised "debates" are designed solely to divvy up the electorate into manageable little demographic cells and sort them into camps, what is left of the democratic process where free citizens weigh the arguments of the candidates on the issues of the day? Where are the hard questions from the peanut gallery? Where are the hecklers? Where is the point-counterpoint of finely-honed rhetoric and argument?

There used to be Democrats who favored a strong national defense. There used to be Democrats who had doubts about abortion. Believe it or not, there used to be Democrats who thought cutting taxes was sometimes a good idea. They tended to lose their arguments with other Democrats, but they existed, and they created a playing field on which important political questions could be discussed. And now they're gone, lost in the obsession with race and gender and class and religion and ethnicity, lost in the enraged cries of racism and sexism. This is not a healthy development, either for the Democratic Party or for America.

Copyright 2008 Michael Kubacki