- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2006

Democrats have a mantra they trot out from time to time when they fall to squabbling among themselves: You can always count on Republicans to march in lockstep, whereas Democrats just can’t keep from arguing with each other.

The mantra is usually expressed in a tone of rueful admiration for this astounding Republican discipline. The real meaning, of course, is different and self-congratulatory: Republicans are automatons willing to sacrifice freedom of thought for the cause, whereas irrepressible Democrats just can’t bring themselves to say things they don’t believe.

Now, as it happens, anybody who has ever watched cable television knows (or ought to know) that both parties are equally competent at developing talking points and recruiting members of their respective cadre to appear and repeat them. But never mind. The salient point now is that Democrats haven’t had much occasion lately to trot out their mantra, for the simple reason that Republicans have been anything but united.

When the White House is strong and has a firm handle on the domestic agenda, with which its allies on Capitol Hill allies are in agreement and cooperating, then you do find a sense of consistency in the message that’s going out. But with the Bush White House and the GOP congressional leadership both weak, the story is the disagreement and discord. Democrats rightly feel they can profit handsomely just by getting out of the way of the GOP’s current self-destructiveness.

Attention now focuses on whether the GOP can hang on to its congressional majorities in November. But as usual, my old friend John Podhoretz is looking at the political chessboard several moves ahead of most everybody else. His new book is “Can She be Stopped? Hillary Clinton will be the Next President of the United States Unless…” with the ellipsis holding the place for the superb political advice Mr. Podhoretz offers fellow Republicans.

Too bad for the GOP, but by Mr. Podhoretz’s reckoning, the current state of Republican political play couldn’t possibly be more conducive to Mrs. Clinton’s political prospects. Left-wing Democratic bloggers have been beating up on her lately, and that has lulled many Republicans into a false sense of security coming from the hope that Democrats are too divided to nominate her and will recur to a candidate too liberal to win. Wrong.

Mrs. Clinton knows perfectly well that the superheated blogosphere is unrepresentative of mainstream Democratic Party sentiment. She does not lose by being attacked from the left. On the contrary. She probably has the keenest appreciation of any plausible Democratic candidate of the real challenge, which is the middle ground. Democrats run for president in a country where the majority is center-right, not center-left. The key to victory is to present a plausible face to the middle, and this task is helped, not hindered, by criticism of her from the left. Oh, if a serious third-party left-wing candidate steps up, a la Ralph Nader, then it likely is “game over.” But in the absence of such a development, Mrs. Clinton’s is well within reach of 50 percent of voters.

To get it, as she well understands, she needs to win the nomination presenting a consistent centrist message. What she needs to do with the left wing of her party, in one word, is to defeat it. The primaries are contests, after all, not occasions for party unity, and what they produce are a winner as well as losers. Once Mrs. Clinton wins, she can be magnanimous in victory, offering the losers the opportunity to come in on the terms she has set for the general election campaign, not theirs. They will mostly take her up on the offer, for opportunistic reasons or out of the sincere conviction that another Republican victory would be worse. If you want an example of someone who understood this very well, that would be Bill Clinton.

The essential theme of Mr. Podhoretz’s book is that Mrs. Clinton is not going to defeat herself. “Unless” the GOP understands the political dynamics that make a Hillary presidency altogether plausible and takes action accordingly, she is well-positioned to win.

As of right now, at least, Republicans are far too obsessed with a desire to wage internecine warfare to lay the foundations of a successful campaign in 2008. Many have succumbed to what Mr. Podhoretz calls the “siren song of schism,” the urge for a purge of their party of ideologically impure elements. Their attitude toward Mr. Bush is “what have you done for me” not lately but “today.”

Mr. Podhoretz offers a 10-point “Stop Hillary” plan, which contains excellent political advice for the GOP, especially concentrating on making her take positions on difficult issues for her party. Republicans can make it very hard for her to hew to a centrist line. They can do the same, by the way, true for Democrats more generally, and this year as well as in 2008.

As of now, though, Republicans seem more interested in providing a political backdrop that makes appearing reasonable cost-free for Democrats.

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