West Wing Democrats Divided by an Obama-Shaped Wedge

At the Democratic National Convention this week, it will become clear that the Democrats have a long way to go before they can speak of unity. The party is split into at least three factions.

By Gabor Steingart


Monday evening will witness the kickoff of the Democratic National Convention in Denver. It promises to be a raucous spectacle, complete with much talk about "change." Indeed, only one other word might have a chance of competing: "unity." But no matter how often we hear that word, the Democrats won't be able to cover up one glaring fact: This year, there isn't one single Democratic Party. Rather, there are at least three of them.

Hillary Clinton endorsed Barack Obama in June. But there are signs that not all is forgiven and forgotten.
REUTERS

Hillary Clinton endorsed Barack Obama in June. But there are signs that not all is forgiven and forgotten.

First, there is the party of Barack Obama. To become the Democratic nominee, a candidate needs 2,118 delegates. Accoriding to the Web site RealClearPolitics.com, Obama secured the votes of 2,229 delegates during the primaries. The Obama Democrats are a coalition make up of the party's younger members, major players in show business and some of the veterans from the Clinton era, such as former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. The young are betting on a new political renaissance, show business is betting on the young, and the old Clintonites are hoping the 47-year-old senator will usher in a second political spring. Barack Obama is their trophy.

Facing the Obama Democrats are the Clinton Democrats. They are bringing 1,896 delegates to the convention, representing approximately 18 million primary voters. At the convention, the Clinton Democrats want to make one more visible show of their strength. It's not enough that two evenings are practically reserved for them. On Tuesday evening, Hillary Clinton will deliver the keynote address, and Bill Clinton will speak on Wednesday evening.

On top of that, TV cameras will broadcast a formal role-call votes that will give the Clinton delegates one last chance to voice their support for their candidate. The hope is the move will provide Clinton supporters a feeling of catharsis. Clinton herself is expected to meet with her delegates on Wednesday and free them so that they can cast their support behind Obama.

Clinton forced Obama to accept the televized roll-call procedure, claiming that it would help with party unity. But in truth, the only thing it helps is to humiliate the Obama Democrats. The message is clear: Obama might have won, but he did not triumph. He is the candidate, but not everybody's candidate.

As if the enmity between Clinton and Obama weren't already enough, the past few weeks have witnessed the formation of a third group of Democrats. This group's profile is a bit harder to define and they aren't led by one spokesperson. Nevertheless, this is the group that might very well come to dominate the mood of the convention. These are the Doubters.

The Democrats of this group are beyond the Clinton past, but they have fallen into a state of brooding about the path into the Obama future. They worry whether Obama is politically strong enough. Particularly during the war in far-away Georgia, many began wondering whether he was as green as his opponents long accused him of being. They wonder why he can't he find the right words to win over working-class voters. Is he a true, hard-nosed politician or something closer to a political poet?

It is the doubters who seem to be on the rise these days. A certain amount of distrust has crept into their view of Obama. When it comes to their hearts, they support him. However, their heads are increasingly sending them a different message.

Opinion polls currently show that swing voters, vital to anyone who expects to win the presidency, are behaving somewhat apathetically. Workers and the elderly have not been particularly drawn to Obama. Even more worrisome, according to the latest poll, Obama only has a 2 percent lead when it comes to support from women. Bill Clinton always enjoyed a two-figure lead in this demographic. There is still obviously bitterness over Hillary Clinton's defeat and that could decide the election. Particularly if McCain were to come up with a woman as his running mate.

The doubters among the delegates, though, are also looking further -- at the potential make up of the Electoral College. A candidate needs to win 270 electors in order to be sent to the White House. Whoever loses as given state, no matter how narrowly, loses all of the electors held by that state -- the only exceptions being Maine and Nebraska where the electors can be split.

In 1992 Bill Clinton won 370 electoral votes. Four years later it was 379. That's what winning an election looks like. According to estimates by realclearpolitics.com, Obama at the moment can only count on 228 electoral votes, when both the states that are solidly for him and those that are leaning towards him are included.

For McCain, that number is only 174 with swing states representing the other 136. But it is becoming increasing clear that, far from infecting all of America, Obama fever has only spread to a part of the Democratic Party, the majority of the US media -- and two thirds of Germans. The election, though, will be won exactly where America is most American -- where people drive big cars, carry weapons, consider the death penalty to be indispensable. And where at the entrance to the supermarket there is a sign reading "We support our troops."

The doubters among the Democrats are not so much doubting Obama's ability to be president. However, they do doubt whether Americans are prepared to accept a Harvard Law School graduate as their leader.

In Denver they want to hear a different Obama to the one his fans love so much. They are expecting the candidate to finally translate his message of "hope" and "change" into everyday language. They want him to stop just talking about himself, his mother, his father and his childhood overseas. They want him to deal with his opponent John McCain, not in flowery terms but clearly.

Obama should be fearing these divided Democrats far more than the attacks by the conservatives. A nervous party is a dangerous party. Dwindling confidence of victory has often been the harbinger of defeat. The Clinton Democrats are only lurking in the wings waiting to build a coalition with the doubters -- for the time after Obama.

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