Gently Lowering Expectations
Maybe it's time for another attempt to refocus the shrillness.
The primaries are almost over. John McCain has the majority of Republican delegates, and Barack Obama continues to lead in Democratic delegates, approaching a majority while Hillary Clinton runs a close second (CNN's horserace).
The party conventions will assemble and count the delegates and make the nominations official, but the primaries--however questionable their claims to democracy--are where most candidates have become losers. The primaries and caucuses have been distorted by money, insiderism, and media favoritism, but they are still the voters' only vehicle for direct expression of their will before the conventions. The voters will not be consulted again until the general election.
As the general election approaches, George W. Bush's thoroughly shameful performance during two disastrous terms in office places the Republicans at a disadvantage from the national level on down. Anyone affiliated with the Republican Party should have copious explaining to do. On an even playing field, any Democratic candidate, from the school board up to the presidency, should be choosing among a wide array of arguments that will hobble and defeat Republicans.
With such a grim outlook based the issues, the Republicans take some solace in the dilemma of the Democrats, who now must choose between a woman and an African American. The Republicans, who define their allies and adversaries in terms of identity politics (aka particularism ), believe that their traditional prejudices are a pragmatic key to the Democratic contest: Whenever the Democrats finish tearing one another apart and settle on a candidate, that candidate will represent one aggrieved identity group that achieved victory at the bitterly resented expense of another. The Democrats do not have to behave according to Republican perceptions, but the tendencies are already in motion.
A divided Democratic Party fits with the long- and short-term interests of the Republicans, whether they are optimistic or pessimistic. McCain will be much stronger against a candidate backed by only half of the Democratic Party. If the damage is great enough--if the wedge can be driven deep enough--a split Democratic Party will conduct such a poor campaign that the Republicans will manage steal or even win the election. If the Democrats win in spite of deep divisions, the Republicans will work to exacerbate them and ensure that that Democrats are unable to muster a reliable legislative majority.
The contest has been close, and often it has been both petty and bitter. The candidates--and especially their supporters--have been less than elegant in their campaigning. Both factions have participated in the quadrennial electoral ritual, opening with position statements and professions of high ideals and then descending into more strident arguments over less significant issues—often in response to prodding from media who bear a closer resemblance to the Signifying Monkey than to Edward R. Murrow. In the end, the Democrats will have to say no to the woman or no to the African American. That rejection will be familiar and offensive to women or to African Americans (and other minorities). Both populations have faced similar rejections throughout their histories in America, and they have felt the influence of prejudice in the selection process. About half of the Democrats will be disappointed. Many of these will be angry. The Republicans will work to increase the disappointment and anger, and the Democrats, led by the winner, will have to bind the wounds and unify and motivate the party. If readers of this blog want to see the Republicans defeated, they will have to overcome their aversion to Unity.
The contest between Clinton and Obama has often deteriorated to the personal level. As a party, the Democrats have no business considering either candidate as unqualified. If they lack faith in the individual, they should take heart from the resources offered by the party, which is able to supply the candidate it selects with a wide range of qualified, experienced advisers who subscribe to the party platform. Obama's and Clinton's positions are mostly similar, which may explain why personal issues have become prominent in distinguishing between them.
Both candidates have disappointed Democrats who were hoping for more radical positions, but both have been constrained to present themselves as committed Democrats who do not make voters uneasy with proposals that stray too far from the status quo. Both talk about change, but the changes that they propose are incremental, not revolutionary--a conservatism encouraged by the national political climate and the perception that election of an African American or a woman would constitute revolutionary change all by itself.
Clinton's unwillingness to repudiate her vote to authorize the U.S. attack on Iraq likely stems from the correct calculation that the Republicans would pounce on such a change of opinion as indecisive and soft on security. Obama has had to prove that he is young, but experienced, and black, but not too. That Clinton and Obama would modulate their positions, statements, and behavior to counter stereotypical reservations about women and African Americans has limited the quality of the debate and the range of their proposals, but it represents recognition of political reality: the insecurities of the electorate and the propensities of Republican operatives.
Once the Democrats have decided on their nominee, we will hear even more attempts to inspire the majority of us voters with calls to hope, unity, and change. The time for considering radical, interesting policy proposals will be split between the past (when the wider fields of candidates were vying for leadership) and the future (after the general election, when the new administration and the new Congress will confront the Bush legacy). I hope (can't help myself) that Democrats--and anyone else who cares about the future beyond the next quarter's profits--will not be so angry, disappointed, or apathetic that they do not recognize that even without radical change, their party is always better for the country, even the ungrateful, shortsighted rich. Many of us won't have the candidate or the policies that we would have preferred, but the fundamental difference between the two parties remains: Both claim to be better for everybody, but the Democrats actually believe it.
I have been disappointed by both candidates, but I'm not suicidal yet.