- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As the spirited Democratic presidential nomination festers, the consequences of continued intraparty squabbling on the general election deserves closer scrutiny. How Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama manage their personal hubris will determine whether the Democrats enter the fall with enthusiasm and energy — or divided and demoralized.

Two contradictory theories populate the mainstream media concerning how an extended primary fight impacts November. One argues that the infighting between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton hurts the Democrats’ chances in November. Divisions suck financial resources away from a unified effort and the loser’s disgruntled supporters could stay home in November.

Some recent polls support this view, showing Democrats whose first choice loses are more willing to support Sen. John McCain than Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee supporters are inclined to vote for a Democrat. Proponents of this theory like to point to 1996 as evidence. Late in 1995 and early in 1996 CNN/USA Today/Gallup polls showed Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and President Clinton in a dead heat. But Mr. Dole endured a series of bitter primary battles that year, costing his campaign millions of dollars and dividing the party faithful.

And because Mr. Clinton had the nomination locked up, the Democratic National Committee used its money to mercilessly pound the Kansas senator in the media during the spring of 1996. By summer, Mr. Dole trailed Mr. Clinton in the same polls by 20 points — a deficit his campaign never fully erased.

So, is 2008 like the election of 1996 in reverse? Can the Republican National Committee inflict irreparable harm on both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, while keeping the news about Mr. McCain positive? And will Democrats spend their time and money fighting each other instead of the Republican nominee? Perhaps. But there is an alternative theory.

Some suggest party infighting contains a silver lining for Democrats as the saturated media attention on Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama helps the Democrats and possibly hurts Mr. McCain. Many media accounts portray the Democratic contest as a near-storybook narrative. It’s a spirited and exciting nomination fight, drawing new voters into the process and generating unprecedented levels of interest in the party and its candidates — as well as a fair amount of journalistic hyperbole.

The Clinton-Obama narrative borders on heroic myth: a scrappy woman on a moral quest to become the first female president of the United States, trying to shatter the inexorable bonds of gender bias in America. Her challenger is a young, visionary African-American, issuing a clarion call for a new politics. Also swimming against the powerful currents of past biases, he draws unprecedented levels of support from idealistic voters under 30 years old, leading them into the process — and a promised land — for the first time. Does it get any better?

Poor John McCain. How does he compete with that? Academic opinion is mixed on the impact of divisive primaries on general elections. But many argue how the national party comes together post-primary shapes the November results. Writing on the blog Frontloading HQ, political scientist Paul-Henri Gurian reports his research, conducted along with several colleagues, suggests, “a divided party will lose up to 5 percent nationally in the general elections, as well as [lose] up to 2 percent in individual states that had divisive primaries.”

But it all comes down to how the loser exits. And despite the current rancor between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, “Democrats have substantial advantages because of the economy and the unpopularity of the president and the war. A nasty, divisive fight at the convention would diminish, but probably not eliminate, those advantages. On the other hand, if the losing candidate exits gracefully, and enthusiastically supports the nominee, then the effects of party divisiveness could be minimal.”

So it all may come down to exit strategies. If hubris trumps party, their bickering will snowball and cause a drag in November. But Democrats will start the healing process with one big advantage — Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton’s differences are not about policy. They do not need to heal rifts between pro-life and pro-choice factions, between those who want to raise taxes and those who want to lower them, between free traders and those who want to scuttle NAFTA, or even between those who want a bigger or smaller role for the government in health care.

The two Democratic candidates mostly agree on all those policies. They may only differ in degrees of narcissism — and who believes they deserve and need the nomination more than anything else, no matter the cost.

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