The best hope Republicans have of keeping the White House is a divided Democratic Party. And if this were a typical election year, they’d probably get their wish. Democrats have elevated snatching defeat from the jaws of victory to an art form and their preferred method is the circular firing squad. That’s why Thursday night’s debate between Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama was such bad news for the GOP. It proved that this time, the Democrats desire to win is overcoming their tendency to self-destruct.
The Clinton and Obama debate was striking in its civility and cordiality. It was the political version of a 1960’s vintage Love-in, without the illegal substances and absent the Jefferson Airplane soundtrack. Contrast this with Wednesday night’s Republican debate. The two leading candidates there, Senator John McCain and former Governor Mitt Romney, seemed to be auditioning for the WWF. The debate should have been held in a cage.
This is not to say all is sweetness and light on the Democratic campaign trails. Leading up to the debate, Senators Clinton and Obama threw several sharp jabs at one another. They’ll no doubt resume this sport as Godzilla Tuesday, February 5th, draws near. Yes, President Bill Clinton has stepped back from his role as Attack Dog in Chief, but the two campaigns continue to “draw distinctions” in sometimes harsh and pointed ways.
But both realized such behavior was ill-suited for Thursday’s debate. It was too historic an occasion — the Democratic nominee will be either a woman or an African American. It was too intimate a setting — they sat side-by-side with no other candidates on stage to distract the eye. And they both had other agendas.
For reasons I discussed in an earlier post, Senator Clinton needed to show she was capable of bringing people together. You don’t do that by attacking your opponent. Senator Obama needed to bring forward his inner policy wonk. Tearing down your opponent distracts from building up your own substantive credentials. They were each on a mission and both succeeded.
The result was a debate marked by humor, compliments and a meaningful discussion of important issues like health care, immigration and the war in Iraq. Most significant, both candidates went out of their way to assure voters they would work together in the general election regardless of which one of them was the nominee. And they appeared sincere.
Meanwhile, the distaste Senator John McCain and former Governor Mitt Romney have for each other was palpable in their debate. There they were at the Reagan Library violating the former president’s 11th Amendment “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” It was downright blasphemous.
The Republicans can’t afford a divided party. They will start the general election already deep in a hole. Their party leader, the sitting president, is immensely unpopular. The economy is turbulent, and probably will remain so through the rest of 2008. And then there’s that unpopular war they support. To hold onto the White House they need to catch a few breaks.
Given the several months left between now and election day in November, there’s plenty of opportunities for the Democrats to oblige. Yet, based on the attitude and behavior on display during the debate, any such gifts are likely to be few and far between, and only grudgingly made.