Blogs > HNN > Who's starting the civil war in the Democratic Party?

Feb 10, 2008 3:44 pm

Who's starting the civil war in the Democratic Party?

Frank Rich warns in the NYT that the Democrats may be about to repeat 1968. A war is upon us, he claims, that could split the party wide open.

This is nonsense and Mr. Rich surely knows it. Democrats are united in their anger at the Republicans and no internecine fight between Hillary and Barack is about to stop most in the party from rallying in the fall behind the nominee no matter whose name is on the ballot.

But if there is a danger it comes not from Hillary's side of the party but from Barack's.

Should Hillary be the nominee, Obama supporters keep hinting, they might just sit out the election. That's not a civil war. But it is a threat to the chances of the Democrats.

Mr. Rich claims that the Clintons are to blame for introducing the issue of race into this race. But this is also nonsense. Race was there all along. But it's the taboo subject no one wants to deal with. Obama, as I pointed out in an earlier post, wouldn't be running if he weren't black; he simply doesn't have enough political experience to be considered viable otherwise. It's his race that has drawn people to him. Whites have been thrilled to have a chance to vote for a black man who shares their values and doesn't remind them of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. He's the true great white hope.

The logic of Obama's candidacy makes it difficult to compete with him. If you favor progress as liberals have defined progress over the last generation, how can you oppose a black man for president who has as much appeal as Obama? Oppose him and you look either like a racist or a selfish politician standing in the way of a historic moment.

That Hillary's candidacy is also historic has not resonated with most voters. This is because Hillary's been around so long that she doesn't seem fresh. Rather than herald a new era she has been made to seem like a relic from an old one.

What's striking is that if Hillary loses the nomination her supporters seem perfectly willing to vote enthusiastically for Obama. They want a Democrat no matter what and he's very appealing no matter what one thinks of his credentials. But the reverse is not true. If Hillary wins Obama's supporters may by the millions simply stay home, miffed that the candidate they fell in love with didn't make it. To hear some of them in private, it would appear that many actually hate Hillary as much as the Republican Clinton-haters do. The split between Obama and Clinton supporters does not amount to a civil war, though. For a civil war both sides have to hate each other. That's simply not the situation. Hillary's supporters do not hate Obama. The hatred is one-way.

Mr. Rich is right that the Clintons have exacerbated the racial tensions underlying the surface of this year's campaign. The former president's crack about Jesse Jackson's two victories in South Carolina was an attempt to link Obama to Jackson and to diminish Obama's victory in the state. But it was hardly playing hardball and Mr. Rich knows it. Hardball is running an ad like George H.W. Bush did in 1988 that features a revolving door featuring black faces while the narrator implies that they committed crimes while on furlough. That's playing the race card big time.

Frank: I love you, but you're sounding like the Republican Clinton haters and it's unbecoming. And it's certainly inconsistent with Obama's message of hope. If you are running as the idealistic candidate of change your supporters shouldn't be running around trashing the opposition. Obama himself has stayed on the high road. But his supporters' knee-jerk Clinton hatred suggests that the Clintons are right in thinking that in American politics people play rough. If Obama supporters are sincere in their desire to remake politics they will quit sounding like Clinton haters and begin following their leader's cue.

But you have to wonder about Obama's reading of the historical moment. He thinks we're ready for idealism. But if he can't stop the Clinton haters on his own side what makes him think he can remake American politics, which would require getting the haters on the other side to stop hating? I'd like to hear his answer.

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Maarja Krusten - 2/14/2008

Overwhelming reaction for those outside Maryland, yeah. But I don't remember seeing news reports of a lot of complaining after Nixon picked him and the brief convention brouhahah passed. People seemed to accept that it was one of those deals. (Agnew had been in the Rockefeller camp.)

When Nixon picked him, I was familiar with Agnew as I then lived in Maryland. I was a senior in high school in Prince Georges County in Maryland when Nixon ran in 1968. I worked on his campaign and my twin sister and I are pictured at the Inaugural youth ball in the book about his Inauguration (The Inaugural Story). I spoke on behalf of Nixon in a mock election at my high school. George Wallace beat out Nixon and Humphrey in a vote among the students in my school.

Agnew had been elected governor of Maryland in 1966. Agnew's Democratic opponent in the 1966 gubernatorial race was George Mahoney, famous in MD for his slogan "Your Home is Your Castle."

Of the modern Presidents, Nixon was among the ones who brought the most experience to the White House. In his case, experience did not turn out to be enough.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/14/2008

"She and her supporters assumed that she had the presumptive right to the nomination because she was the first highly competent woman to run. "

Quite honestly, most of the people I know who support her do so because they think she would be better in office.

That she is a woman adds something to the pleasure of supporting her, just as Obama being black adds something to the pleasure of supporting him. In both cases, the added pleasure comes from being part of something historic and, all else being even, something positive for the nation.

But for most Obama and most Clinton supporters, that something is not the reason for the decision. It is a benefit accrued after the decision is made.

Dan J. Herman - 2/14/2008

This comment is intended for Rick Schenkman. I hope he reads it, but if not, perhaps someone else will.

Rick, I admire you enormously. I was an early contributed to HNN, and I still read it regularly. I particularly admire your incisive columns. But not this one.

First to your argument that Obama is able to run only because he is black. Nonsense. Abraham Lincoln, as you know, had the sum experience of one term in Congress and a few years in the Illinois legislature. John Edwards when he was first considered for VP had 2 years in the Senate with NO previous political experience, and had only a single term in the Senate when he ran for president (I reiterate: he had NO political experience before the Senate, unlike Obama, who had a lot before he came to Washington). Al Gore ... if memory serves, he had only a partial term in the Senate when he first ran for president. The difference is that Obama is simply a better candidate than either Edwards or Gore.

It is exciting that Obama is black ... yes it is ... but he is not succeeding, as you claim, simply because he does not remind us of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. He is succeeding because he is brilliant, charismatic, and positive. No, he doesn't remind us of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton; he reminds us of JFK and Franklin Roosevelt. That is why he is succeeding. Clinton doesn't have that sort of appeal.

Too: Thank God for Frank Rich! He is the only pro-Obama voice in the NYT. In the same week that he ran the "anti-Hillary" column, the NYT ran anti-Obama columns by Paul Krugman ("Hate Springs Eternal") and Stanley Fish ("A Calumny A Day Keeps Hillary Away"). Those columns are somewhat in line with yours.

Their logic went like this: Fish argued that the criticism of Hillary is irrational (focusing on her dress, looks, voice, ambition, etc.) and hence sexist. Krugman, like you, argued that the venom in the race comes from the Obama side, and urged both candidates (but really just Obama) to make a statement to the effect that they would support their opponent if he/she is nominated.

As an Obama supporter, both those columns irked me in the extreme, and yours added to the irk. First, the argument that those who don't like Hillary are sexist is the mirror image of what you CLAIM is the argument of the Obama people, i.e., that not to support Obama is racist.

Can we please get beyond those questions? NO Obama supporter that I know, and I know plenty, thinks that Clinton supporters are racists. Maybe that idea is out there, but it's far from ubiquitous among Obama people. But there are plenty of Clinton supporters who think that their opposites are sexists, a la Fish. Yech.

Message to those who think Obama supporters are engaging in sexism: every candidate gets bashed by their opponents in a personal way! Not just Hillary Clinton! Reagan was roasted for his orange hair, his '50s father-knows-best appearance, his superficiality. Bill Clinton was roasted for holding up flights out of LAX while he got an expensive haircut. Edwards suffered a similar fate for his coif. Mondale was pilloried for his monotonous voice and lack of spunk. I personally loved to call attention to Fred Thompson's resemblance to a Klingon. Etc. etc. etc.

And beyond that, Fish and other Hillary supporters merely cherry pick the particular anti-Hillary comments that seem to make their case. The fact is, the dislike of Hillary is not sexist; it stems from her sense of entitlement. She and her supporters assumed that she had the presumptive right to the nomination because she was the first highly competent woman to run. [Thus the tear speech in New Hampshire; disappointment born of presumption got magically transformed into a touching concern for the country. Voters were taking the country in the "wrong direction," as though an Obama presidency would somehow be a great evil.]

The sense of entitlement that has led to the very personal criticisms, but where's the sexism? Voters, especially Democrats, love to stick pins in baloons filled with presumption. That's politics. It's not sexism.

What I also find interesting is that the cherry-picked nasty comments about Hillary are attributed to ALL Obama supporters, as though we were a bunch of raving fanatics. The implication could be that Obama's supporters are throwbacks to 60s radicalism, Panther supporters, people who are angry and vicious.

I don't think that's the intention. Nonetheless, you and Krugman and Fish and others are calling the Obama people fanatical, unreasonable, etc. That is utter crap, to be crass about it. What the attacks on the Obama supporters show to me is that the Hillary supporters are themselves sore losers.

Every Obama supporter I know would support Clinton (and indeed would ardently support her, just as we did when she was first lady) if she were the nominee. We just think our guy is a far better candidate. She has the persona of the class valedictorian. Our guy has the persona of a JFK. She has the better policies by a nose, but must we therefore choose the wonk over the guy who might actually overcome gridlock?

In short you and Fish and Krugman and others in the Clinton camp are contributing to the animus between the camps. I don't think it matters in the end; the Clinton people will support Obama if he's the nominee, and the Obama people will support Clinton.

But if you want to make things worse, please, keep on telling everyone that Obama people are small and vicious and will sabotage the party if their guy isn't chosen. Maybe you can make Obama people mad enough that your prediction will come true in the end.

HNN - 2/14/2008

Re: Agnew.

The obverwhelming response to Nixon's selection of Agnew was Spiro who?

Nixon defended him saying that when you look him in the eye you know he's got it. But I don't think there were many people who thought that.

HNN - 2/14/2008

I don't argue that Hillary Clinton is well prepared for the office.

About the only one who is is Al Gore and he's not running unfortunately.

Why can you not admit that Obama is not well prepared for the job? One can still be for him -- as I will be in the Fall if he is the Democratic Party nominee -- without pretending he's well qualified to be president of the United States.

Maarja Krusten - 2/14/2008

I see you're still debating the Frank Rich piece. At least in the Virginia primary this week, news reports suggest that race had little impact. Obama won 54% of the vote in the Shenandoah Valley area, which is 85% white. Throughout Virinia, young voters turned out in larger numbers than in the past. In Virginia, Obama received 72% support from white voters under 30 years of age.

Here's what two reporters in today's Washington Post said:

"Virginia appeared to be a nearly perfect state for Obama, the strategists said, with its African Americans, college-educated professionals, young voters, independents and disenchanted Republicans voting in the state's open primary.

Heidi Johannesen, 33, of Fairfax said she voted for Obama even though she has voted for George W. Bush. "I'm just looking for change," she said. "We are in desperate need of something different."

[Gov. Tim] Kaine appealed to the same groups when he was elected. He said Obama's message of governing in a bipartisan way resonated.

"People have gotten so tired of the 'I am right and if you disagree with me you're either corrupt or an idiot' style of politics," Kaine said. "Obama is very strong on that point; he doesn't demonize people."

Obama recorded one of his top showings among white women and scored his first decisive victory among Southern white men. He lost to Clinton among white women by only six percentage points, and he beat the New York senator by 18 points among white men.

Obama beat Clinton for the first time among senior citizens. Swanee Busic, 65, of Reston voted twice for Bush but now sees herself as an independent. "I'm thinking Obama is really someone who's new, who's not so deep in politics," Busic said."

Rick, you mentioned governors. Spiro Agnew had been county executive and governor before becoming Vice President. His selection for the ticket in 1968 largely was met with approval in Republican circles. As VPs go, he seemed like a safe choice. But once in office, Nixon derided him as his "insurance policy." Nixon showed little respect for Agnew; he indicated that people would not want him succeeding Nixon should something happen. Agnew's brief period of service as county executive and governor apparently meant little.

Of course, both men were undone by character issues. Agnew ended up resigning in the face of a bribery scandal dating back to his days as governor. Nixon, a man who had served as Congressman, Senator and Vice President before ascending to the Presidency, also had to resign from office.

One the other hand, after serving as governor, Ronald Reagan went on to serve as President and to this day receives high marks in in general polls taken among the public to rank Presidents. Obama himself referred to him as a transformational figure.

There are so many variables. I don't believe what happened in one election cycle in terms of candidates, their experience, and what the electorate was looking for, necessarily enables observers, even historians, to calculate what might happen in another. It is useful, however, for historians to point to how differently various forces have played out in the past.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/14/2008

Hillary Clinton has no prior executive experience. And Obama's direction of his campaign has run circles around her.

Rick Shenkman - 2/13/2008

JFK was a far more serious candidate for president in 1960 than Obama is today. He had already be considered veep material four years earlier and had served 14 years in Congress. Where was Obama four years ago? He was in the state legislature.

But for Obama being black I do not believe he would have been considered a serious contender for president, irrespective of all of his incredible qualities.

Who else in the modern age has risen so fast so far with as short a resume? The two of the least qualified were Carter and Bush II (neither of whom in my opinion should have run for president given their meagre credentials). But both of them at least had been governors.

Maarja Krusten - 2/13/2008

Here's an analyis of the exit polling for the Democratic contest in the Potomac primaries in the area where I live.

See also

for an analysis of the voting in the Democratic primaries


for an analysis of the voting in the Republican primaries.

One thing that struck me at my polling place in (Northern) Virginia (which has an open primary) was the high number of young people in line. I waited in line for an hour to vote Tuesday morning, normal for a general election but an unusually lengthy wait for a primary in my precinct. Those who voted in the morning, even at the risk of arriving late to work, did better than those who waited. An ice storm that hit in late afternoon and lasted through the evening and into Wednesday morning made conditions very treacherous for pedestrians and drivers alike Tuesday evening.

Posted on personal time

Ralph E. Luker - 2/12/2008

But, in 1960, most observers would have thought it *quite* bizarre had *anyone* said that "if JFK were not Catholic, he would *not* be a *serious* candidate for President." It would have suggested that the critic had a serious problem with their monocausal argument. Seriously, you ought to consider the possibility that there are other reasons that Obama is a serious candidate for President.

HNN - 2/12/2008

Hi Ralph,

Why don't I comment on the fact that McCain and Clinton are white? Because in a country that has only elected whites in two centuries their being white is hardly noteworthy.

But I will say this: being white obviously helped both win office.

As I wrote in my book Presidential Ambition, "The thing that the presidents have needed most to succeed was luck--plain, ordinary dumb luck." First on my list of luck: "The luck of birth ... to have been born white, male, and Protestant...."

JFK proved you don't need to be Protestant to win. Obama may prove that you don't need to be white.

But is it remarkable of me, given our history, to comment on Obama's race? No more so than it was remarkable in 1960 to talk about JFK's religion.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/12/2008

Rick, You insist, with *repeated* posts, that Obama wouldn't be considered a viable candidate if he were not an African-American. It is commentaries like that that make race an issue. Has he less experience in government than John McCain? Undoubtedly. He is also younger by 25 years plus. That is, to my mind, a good thing. Has he less than Hillary Clinton's vaunted 35 years of public service? Yes, if you take her years of practicing corporate law to be public service. Why do you *not* repeatedly comment on the fact that McCain and Clinton are white?

E. Simon - 2/10/2008

once Hillary does what's good for American politics and gracefully exits the stage that her presidential soapbox sits on.

One thing I noticed about your post is that, while the Republicans certainly did ignite a lot of excess hatred, you never mention Hillary's role in any of this - as if she were a saint. Threatening to publicly "demonize" Democratic legislators for not going along with her secret, mandate-driven healthcare plan doesn't seem like a wise thing, let alone ethically sensible. Do you really think that she learned from this awful mistake, let alone the approach that drove it? Experience only counts if you can learn from it.

Second, even if one were to frame Hillary as an utterly wronged and victimized martyr, it wouldn't change the fact that the electorate still sees her as divisive.

Democrats endeared to Clinton can defend her to the hilt, but Obama's supporters are right to understand that the divisive partisanship baggage that she carries only makes it harder for Democrats to implement their agenda. As does her unwillingness to recognize the appropriate and less corrupting role of lobbying. Obama, as he said, stood up to the lobbyists, prevented them from funding his campaign, and won - meaning that they could have a place in his decisions, but no longer an over-riding one in his administration. Why more Democrats didn't understand how unattractive and meaningless it made their party look to "stand for the people" while becoming increasingly beholden to special interests never ceases to amaze me.

Hillary's supporters would be right to be more gracious about accepting her defeat than Obama's would have been. He is the only choice for making any sense out of what the Democratic party could possibly stand for. And it is no wonder and no small secret that this fact is not lost on civil Republicans who have pined since GWB for an opposition more intellectually worthy of their respect.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/10/2008

I don't really think that race is the issue which is keeping Obama supporters from seeing Clinton as a viable candidate, though: most of the "I wouldn't vote for her" statements seem -- as far as I've seen -- to be coming from the "energized" white and young Obama supporters, not from the traditional Democratic African American base.

The issue with these voters is "newness" and "change" and it's awfully hard for Hillary Clinton to present herself as an agent of change -- though with regard to a potential McCain administration, it's not hard to see that there would be big differences -- when she's been a mildly reformist centrist figure for fifteen years.