- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Physician Howard Dean is wrestling with every doctor’s nightmare: a patient who has cold feet about taking his advice.

The Democratic National Committee chairman’s patient is his party, particularly its superdelegates, who appear destined to be the tie-breaking deciders in the quest by Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the party’s presidential nomination.

Superdelegates are the party leaders and elected officials not pledged as a result of the primaries or caucuses to vote for a particular candidate. About 320 of them, 35 percent of the total delegate count, still were uncommitted, Mr. Dean said, and he wanted them to make up their minds by the final primaries on June 3.

“I need them to say who they’re for, starting now,” Mr. Dean told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer after Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama debated in Philadelphia. The party “cannot give up three months of campaigning and active healing time,” he said.

That’s what is expected if the primaries and caucuses have not chosen enough pledged delegates for either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama to clinch the nomination. The decision would go to the full Democratic National Convention in late August.

That’s a delight for journalists because it means real news would break out. And that’s a horror for the party, which would rather have a nice, well-staged pageant of unity than actual debates, arguments and all-night food fights beneath the unblinking gaze of heat-seeking media. Enough, says Mr. Dean. It’s time for that drama to end. Now.

But, is anyone listening? The longer the undecideds hold out, the more they matter to both campaigns actively are wooing them. Everyone loves to be wooed. But it is not good for the party’s future. Democracy is good. Indecision is crippling and self-destructive.

Last week’s debate in Philadelphia illustrated the problem. At a time when Democrats should be getting their message together to do battle with Arizona’s Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, their front-runners were stuck in another high-profile event that focused mercilessly on their weaknesses more than their strengths.

As numerous critics have noted, ABC’s Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos spent too much of the debate’s first hour on hot-button tabloid questions. But, in fairness to the moderators, that agenda was set largely by events.

Voters do need to hear more about how the candidates will deal with the Iraq war, our faltering economy, the mortgage crisis, national security, the weak dollar, rising oil prices, gaps in health care, student loans and taxes. But the big differences on these urgent issues are not between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, but between each of them and Mr. McCain, who has enjoyed a free ride and a boost in his approval ratings during the prolonged Democratic slugfest.

Frustration at being forced yet again to face each other in their 21st debate seemed to show in the faces of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama. They looked exhausted, bored and eager to debate Mr. McCain. But first they had to face yet another round of hot-button “character” questions, justified by Democrats’ need to assess their electability.

Mr. Obama seemed prepared to answer a new question on the character theme. How well did he know his Chicago neighbor and former fellow foundation board member William Ayers, the former member of the Weather Underground Organization, a violently radical 1960s and early-1970s group? Mr. Ayers, now a college professor and education consultant, has been a model citizen for more than 20 years. Yet, conservatives like Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity have been accusing Mr. Obama of an Ayers “relationship” for weeks as if Mr. Obama were a fellow bomber.

Mr. Obama noted Mr. Ayers’ bomb-making days occurred “when I was 8,” adding for good measure that President Bill Clinton pardoned two other Weather Underground members. Score two for Barack Obama.

But the debate scraped bottom when, before Mr. Obama was asked about gasoline prices or some other urgent issue, he was asked why he does not wear an American flag pin. Straight out of an Internet-based smear campaign against Mr. Obama, the question begs a larger question: Why does no one ever seem to ask Mrs. Clinton or Mr. McCain why they don’t wear flag pins?

But, as long as Democrats remain undecided as to their nominee, the lingering electability question will continue to give undeserved significance to such emotionally charged trivia.

The superdelegates need to make their feelings known, sooner rather than later, for the good of their party. Campaigns lose when they’re forced to put too much attention on themselves and too little on us, the voters. Sometimes even superdelegates forget that.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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