The Democrats Could Blow It Again

Until recently, like most liberals, I was convinced that 2008 was going to be a Democratic year. While Republicans have been listless and divided, Democrats have been passionate and enthusiastic about their candidates for president. An unpopular war, a sinking economy, a general sense of conservative exhaustion: All pointed toward a Democratic triumph in November. A lot of conservatives had come to grudgingly agree and were preparing to spend four years in political rehab.

But after the first rounds of caucuses and primaries, the prospects don't look so rosy for the Democrats or so bleak for the Republicans. The presidential race now looks like a toss-up -- perhaps even with a Republican edge.

Especially after his win in South Carolina, Sen. John McCain has a plausible route to the GOP nomination, and he remains by far his party's best bet for holding onto the White House. The Republican field has been so preoccupied with appealing to the party's hard-core base that it seemed that the eventual winner would have little appeal to the independent voters who can swing a general election. Even McCain started out by embracing the evangelical Christians he had once denounced. But as his seemingly dead campaign has been reborn, his initial efforts to pander to the religious right have been forgotten, and he is once again happily running as a "maverick."

Though his nomination is hardly guaranteed, the Arizona senator would provide the GOP with a powerful mix of continuity and change - continuity with the Bush administration on Iraq at a moment when the conventional wisdom is that the "surge" is succeeding, and a sense of change and freshness from McCain's past deviations from conservative orthodoxy.

But the major reason I see trouble ahead for the Democrats is that voting patterns so far, as well as rumbling tensions over race and gender, suggest serious vulnerabilities in both of the Democratic front-runners that McCain or another rival could exploit. Most pundits assume it's the Republicans who have the weak field, but the leading Democrats -- both attractive and impressive people -- carry dangerous downsides of their own.

Sen. Barack Obama appeals strongly to affluent whites and minorities -- the old John Lindsay coalition -- but he seems to lose working-class whites, who may well be attracted to McCain's image as a man of old-fashioned virtues. Moreover, if the pollsters turn out to have been wrong in predicting the outcome in New Hampshire in part because of the "Bradley effect" -- that is, the polling tendency to overestimate the number of votes a black candidate will win because some whites opposed to that candidate refuse to speak to pollsters or claim to be undecided - then Democrats may also be deceiving themselves about the Illinois senator's chances in the general election. National surveys that show Obama beating various Republicans may be overstating his potential share of the vote.

For her part, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has done better at appealing to lower- and middle-income whites, especially women. But her loss to Obama among male voters in New Hampshire suggests that just as race may block Obama's path to the presidency, so gender may obstruct hers. That's hardly a surprise, of course. But Democrats have been so excited about the prospect of a historical breakthrough that many of them seemed to forget that plenty of voters are still swayed by old prejudices.

The very qualities in Obama that progressive Democrats and independents find thrilling -- the sheer power of his oratory and physical presence -- may stir an unspoken anxiety and panic among other voters who fear the kind of change that Obama would bring. Likewise, Clinton's strength is also a source of uneasiness. Throughout her career, she has stirred an irrational hatred that is not primarily of her own making. To much of the public, when she is tough, she seems unwomanly and therefore inhuman; when she is soft, she seems unfit to be commander in chief. It's the old double bind that women have always faced in acquiring power, but wishing it weren't so won't make the dilemma vanish.

Although each candidate faces deep and abiding obstacles, racism today operates for the most part insidiously, below the surface of politics, while gender stereotypes are on more open display. Even when race rises to the surface in a political campaign, as it did last week, it usually carries with it an uncomfortable sense that the conversation is coded and that anyone bringing up the subject is out to stigmatize a black candidate. By contrast, women can be belittled and mocked in ways that no one would dare publicly try with African Americans. And in Clinton's case, much of the acid sprayed at her comes from other women, some of them on the op-ed pages of national newspapers.

It was never going to be easy to elect a woman or an African American president of the United States. And it is a cruel historical twist that the republic has its first serious female candidate for president at the same time that it has its first serious black candidate, forcing the two to fight each other for the Democratic nomination. Neither Obama nor Clinton is running on their identity, but because the substantive policy differences between them are so small, identity has become central to their showdown. Even with the best of intentions, this kind of competition can easily take an ugly turn as incidental remarks or minor episodes get turned into symbols of seeming disrespect or are suspected of being forms of strategic insinuation.

I am not concerned that the losing candidate will refuse to endorse the winner. The dangers for the eventual nominee are that the early enthusiasm among the Democratic base could wane, dragging down turnout in the fall, and that other voters, particularly working-class white men, could become alienated from the party altogether.

Winning back these so-called Reagan Democrats has long been the party's principal political challenge. The last thing the Democrats need is to have this year's primaries devolve into a factional, fractious debate over racism and sexism that reminds some people why they deserted the Democrats in the first place. In the primaries, former senator John Edwards has offered a third option for some of these voters, who may be supporting him not because of his fighting message but because he is the white guy in the race. In the general election, this bloc might move to the Republican nominee.

Democrats ought to be able to make substantial gains among working-class voters this cycle. A declining economy the year before a presidential election has historically been a strong predictor of victory for the opposition party. The more the economy becomes the campaign's focus, the greater the Democrats' chances of appealing to voters feeling the brunt of the downturn. But conversely, the more the debate focuses on race and gender, and the longer the fight between Clinton and Obama drags on, the worse the fallout is likely to be in November.

By no means am I suggesting that if McCain is the Republican candidate, yet another Democratic heartbreaker is foreordained. The underlying trends that favor the Democrats could still prove decisive. The extraordinary turnout in the early Democratic contests may well herald a stunning increase in the fall of underrepresented voters eager for change. With Obama or Clinton on the ballot (and, in the end, perhaps both), electricity will be in the air, and historical precedents may be a poor guide to the outcome. Clinton and Obama are gifted campaigners, likely to endure the rigors of a punishingly long race better than the 71-year-old McCain. And an "issue environment" dominated by the economy would likely put the foreign-affairs-oriented McCain at a disadvantage. The Republican nomination fight could be even more protracted and bloody than the Democratic one. But Democrats should be cautious rather than cocky about their chances -- particularly if New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg decides to run. Only in Manhattan would he ever have been considered a Republican, and his message of social tolerance, fiscal discipline and managerial competence is more likely to hurt Democrats than Republicans.

All of which leaves 2008 looking like an uncertain gamble, rather than the sure thing that so many Democrats were anticipating last year. According to every indicator of trends in public opinion, fundraising, and the economy, this should be a Democratic moment. But a referendum on racism and sexism in the spring does not seem like a prelude to victory in the fall. Keeping the election focused on the manifest failures of conservative Republican leadership is the only way the Democrats can grasp the opportunity at hand.

This article originally appeared, in a slightly different version, in the Washington Post.

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