Barack Obama did something important yesterday. He proved that a neophyte politician can learn enough on the job to be a credible presidential candidate. But what he still lacks is the power and stature to heal his divided party.
In a Fox News Sunday interview with Chris Wallace, Obama appeared poised, charming and reasonable. Wallace pressed him gently on a number of issues: taxes, the effect of his race on his competitiveness, and the war, among others. Gone were the flutters and flusters of the ABC Pennsylvania primary debate, the abrupt reactions in the post-Ohio press conference. You can’t credit his handlers for a performance like this. He’s not the “Obambi” deer-in-the-headlights any more.
Obama seemed confident that he could unify a Democratic Party that is more divided, more wounded than at any time since Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek his party’s nomination for president in 1968. But can he?
The Democrats of 2008 are more divided than they were then despite the fact that forty years ago the unpopular president and unpopular war were both theirs. They managed to unite, futilely, around their “Happy Warrior” Hubert Humphrey who — even after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy — could not unify his party or American voters around him. This year should be theirs: the Republican president is more unpopular than any in the history of the Gallup Poll, the war in Iraq confused and unwon. But the Democrats are polarized by the Howard Dean primary scheme beyond Obama’s ability to heal.
No matter how many times Howard Dean pleads, no matter if Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi (the weakest congressional leaders in modern memory) pressure the superdelegates, there is no way Hillary Clinton can be beaten without a bitter and divisive convention fight. And Clinton is preparing for just that.
In 1968, the Democratic Convention in Chicago was the event that sunk Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey came into the race late, without competing in most primaries and winning delegates in non-primary states. While the convention delegates shouted inside, antiwar radicals — and others — rioted outside. The convention-cum-infomercial that the Democrats wanted to stage was supplanted by the insane radicalism of the rioters. After the convention, Humphrey was powerless to divorce himself from the news images of the demonstrators. The “Chicago Democrats” — in Nixon’s campaign language — were sunk by their own images.
This year, the Dems — and the antiwar radicals they coddle — are poised for a repeat of 1968, or something worse. Obama will go to the convention with more solid support than Humphrey had, but so will Clinton. If Barack Obama is to win the White House, he has to avoid that, and he cannot. Obama lacks the leverage to resolve the nomination before the convention, and so does Clinton.
And lacking that leverage, the only way to avoid another 1968 is for the two to settle the question themselves. Which is as likely as Katie Couric keeping her job.
Obama has no reason to compromise with Clinton. He is leading in both delegates and the popular vote. Clinton, too, has no reason to compromise, having won only about 135 fewer delegates than he. And she is incapable of compromising with him. She has played second-fiddle all her life: this is her last hurrah. So in late August, the Dems will convene for a political bloodletting.
Americans have forgotten what a contested convention looks like. In 2004, both parties provided a boring three-day coronation of their nominees, and never was heard a discouraging word. The Democrats even managed to keep their crazies — such as the gay-lesbian-transgender types who shouted the Boy Scouts off the stage in 2000 — out of camera range. This year the Republicans will remain boring. The Dems will provide a spectacle that will rival the John Belushi food fight scene in “Animal House.”
Inside the Denver convention hall, it will be worse than it was in 1968. The credentials committee will decide some crazy-quilt compromise to seat the Florida and Michigan delegations. And whatever their decision is, it will have to be brought to the full convention for a bitterly-fought vote. Every debate, every protest and every vote will be spotlighted by the world’s media.
This time, the crazies outside will be matched by crazies inside. Look for the CodePinkos, the MoveOn’ers and every illegal alien support group to be marching, shouting and dancing in the aisles as hapless Howard Dean tries to keep order.
And amidst all that, the nomination will be contested. Hillary Clinton is reportedly lining up superdelegates who will stick with her through several nominating ballot votes. Obama will do the same.
Outside the convention hall, a pseudo-organization called “Recreate ‘68” and whatever loons, losers and louts they can recruit will disturb the peace as well as they are able. But Denver ’08 will differ from Chicago ’68 in one important way: the Denver Police will, I predict, be better prepared and better disciplined than were Richard Daley’s men. The action inside will be more interesting.
All this could give John McCain a great advantage, which he would be ill-advised to count on. As badly divided as the Democrats may be, Republicans are in almost as bad a shape.
In the Fox News interview, Obama said that his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, is a legitimate political issue for him. Mr. McCain apparently disagrees, demanding that the North Carolina Republican Committee withdraw a television ad that shows Wright at his America-damning worst. And the Tarheel Republicans have — properly — refused to do so.
Last Thursday, North Carolina Republican Chairman Linda Davies said, “Our aim is to tell the truth and ask difficult questions. We will continue to do so.” According to Fox News she said, “I have great respect and admiration for Senator McCain. He will be a great President when he is elected in November. As State Party Chairman, I serve in a dual role. Not only do I support our party’s candidate for President of the United States, I also have a duty to see that Republicans are elected across the state of North Carolina. This ad opposes two Democrat candidates for Governor of North Carolina. It poses a legitimate question about judgment for which the people of North Carolina deserve an answer.”
If Obama admits Wright is a legitimate political issue, why won’t McCain? And if North Carolina bucks McCain, others will.
Sen. McCain’s ability to unify his party thus remains in question. His task should be easier than Obama’s or Clinton’s. But it is a long way from being accomplished.