Friday, February 23, 2007

The Democrats and the Clinton-Obama Tussle

E. J. Dionne, over at the Washington Post, has an interesting analysis of this week's intra-party dust up between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Dionne notes that the Clinton-Obama feud is good for the other Democratic presidential aspirants (since both candidates showed they care more about their own interests than those of their party) and it's good for the Republicans (because it's taking media attention away from the GOP's own internal battles). Dionne also provides some nice historical context, with some political implications:

The petty feud was started by big-time producer Geffen's brutal remarks about the Clintons, which appeared after he helped raise a ton of Hollywood money for Obama. The grudge match revived those depressing cliches about the Democrats: their affection for circular firing squads and their habit of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

You wonder what Clinton and Obama will learn from this. Both might study the long Democratic nomination fight that began in 1987, well in advance of the 1988 election.

There was an obvious front-runner named Gary Hart, a smart, young former Colorado senator who promised to lead his party out of the 1930s into the 1990s. There was a young Delaware senator named Joe Biden, the same guy who's running this time. Biden wasn't the clear No. 2 that Obama is now, but he got some good early reviews.

Before election year dawned, Hart and Biden were knocked out of the race, because of their own mistakes for sure, but also because of whispering campaigns and subterranean attacks by their opponents.

By the fall of 1987, the Democrats looked like ineffectual dwarfs, to use the word popular back then. A Republican operative named Haley Barbour -- now Mississippi's governor -- happily declared: "At the beginning of this year, the American people questioned whether the Democrats had the first team on the field. I think everything that's happened has confirmed that it's a real amateur hour. It's been a confirmation of people's idea that these aren't the big boys."

Obama and Clinton lieutenants and their full-of-themselves fundraisers: Read Barbour a few times and remember that the Democrats blew the 1988 election. Today, the party has its most talented collection of candidates since 1960. That could change fast.

Political junkies know the week's story line, but in brief: Geffen, a Hollywood mogul who co-hosted a $1.3 million fundraiser for Obama, trashed Bill and Hillary Clinton to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who gets the powerful to say the darnedest things. The Clinton and Obama camps went to war, rocking computers all over the country with incendiary e-mails.

The Clinton side insisted that Obama -- the let's-end-negative-politics candidate -- disown Geffen. The Obama forces trashed Clinton for accepting support from a South Carolina Democrat who suggested that Obama would doom the ticket because he's black.

Just lovely. Because Clinton pulled her saintly opponent off his pedestal and made her new enemy Geffen into an Obama problem, she might be seen as the net winner. In truth, both campaigns showed they care a lot more about themselves than the causes (and the party) to which they claim to be devoted.

That's why every other Democratic presidential candidate was smiling, and why Republicans were gleeful, too. Absent the explosions set off by Geffen's therapy session with Dowd, the big news would have been Dick Cheney's mean jab at John McCain.

McCain, ensnared in Bush's Iraq disaster, tried to disentangle himself by going after Cheney and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Cheney's devastating pushback in an interview with ABC News made McCain look wimpy and less than straight-talking: "John said some nasty things about me the other day, and then next time he saw me, ran over to me and apologized. Maybe he'll apologize to Rumsfeld."

But the Hollywood news pushed the Republican eye-scratching over Iraq onto the back pages. It also shrank coverage of the first big Democratic forum in Nevada (only Obama skipped it), where the candidates sparred about serious issues, notably over how to achieve universal health coverage.

Oh, but health care is so boring compared with a Hollywood big shot who drops hints about Bill Clinton's love life. Yeah? Tell that to the family of someone who died of cancer because she had no insurance and couldn't afford a screening test.

Clinton, Obama and their brilliant staffs don't own the Democratic Party, no matter how much money they raise in Hollywood. If they think this is all about their personal drama, they should quit politics and go into the movies. Geffen can put up the money.

Dionne could have given many more examples of pre-primary, intra-party fights, which are elemental to the parties' nomination process. We'll be seeing a lot more of this stuff as the race continues. It's great theater, though it's not so great for public deliberation of the candidates' policy positions.

No comments: