By Gabor Steingart in Washington
In January a South Korean boxer, Choi Yo Sam, died after a gripping title fight. He dropped to the mat in the 12th round, stood up again, wobbled, and was declared the winner on points. Shortly later he lapsed into a coma. Doctors eventually had to declare him brain-dead.
The coma patient of American politics may turn out to be the Democratic Party. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have both had to fend off some nasty hits. They want to finish each other off politically, and every day brings new injuries.
The blows are hard and keep hitting the same sensitive areas. She says he's inexperienced. He thinks she's old hat. She spreads it around that a local mafioso figure helped him buy a Chicago mansion. His campaign managers keep calling for a public peek at her tax returns.
Flanked by 12 ranking military figures, she wonders aloud whether he's ready to be commander-in-chief. He says there's proof that her judgment in security matters is underdeveloped. She says his eloquent speeches have been stolen from other people. He says she can't inspire Americans.
This back-and-forth has lasted for months. Republicans can just sit and take notes. When the Democrats finally choose a candidate for president in August, the winner of this internicine party battle will have to go up against all the same accusations from a Republican opponent -- but ten times worse. Indeed, what's uttered now will be fired from a cannon later. With every day that passes, it grows clearer that the winner will hardly be able to savor his victory.
Election campaigns, normally, are more like major ad campaigns. The true politics come later. This time it may be different, though. Halfway through the campaign, a juicy chunk of politics has been extracted from each candidate. Indeed, the White House may only be winnable for the Democrats now through a combined effort -- and the candidates should be saying to one another, "compromise, not conflict." Of course, compromise is just conflict by more sophisticated means.
In light of the political stalemate in the Democratic Party, a fight to the end is no longer worth very much. Young Democrats would never forgive Hillary for winning. On the day of her victory millions of tears would flow. Many academics are also ready to walk through fire for Obama; they wouldn't even offer Mrs. Clinton their seat on the subway.
His victory, moreover, would be felt by America's Baby Boomers -- the Clinton Generation -- as their day of capitulation. The little guys, too, workers with annual incomes of under $50,000, can hardly be moved in any significant majority by his political sermons. They do not share his vision.
A dangerous balance of power has come about that may last for the rest of the campaign for the nomination. All the arguments have been made, all the taunts whispered, all opinions formed. Even if Hillary wins every remaining primary -- which is unrealistic -- the number of regular delegates she can win can't crown her as the Democrats' nominee. The same math works in reverse: Even if Obama wins all the coming fights -- also almost impossible -- he won't have enough delegates to assure him of the nomination.
'Win or Die'
The 800 or so "super delegates" at the Democratic nominating convention this summer in Denver will represent the party establishment, not the will of voters. These super delegates will make up the difference of votes needed by either candidate, and the final decision will come down to them. Not a few of them believe that Obama would make a perfect vice president. The reverse scenario has Hillary, as a woman of the world, making an excellent Secretary of State.
Rarely have two such dogged candidates faced each other in the primary campaign. Now and then big personalities who didn't have a whole lot to say to each other have been forced to cooperate after a heated campaign. Ronald Reagan, for example, named George H. W. Bush vice president despite the fact that Bush (the current president's father) had smeared Reagan's fiscal ideas as "voodoo economics."
And despite his own designs on the presidency, Lyndon B. Johnson helped John F. Kennedy win the White House as a vice presidential candidate. As leader of the Democrats in the Senate, Johnson had the potential to be a very formidable opponent.
Campaign managers for both camps are anything but thrilled by the prospect of a similar "dream ticket" in 2008. The Clinton team, which first mentioned the possibility of Obama as vice president, won't listen to any compromise that puts their candidate at a disadvantage. Sink or swim, do or die, they holler. Obama's declared goal for the season is also a Clinton "knockout."
In the boxing ring, a referee would have to blow the whistle on a death match. In this case the arbitrators would have to be Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, Democratic heavyweight Ted Kennedy and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Some of them have already been heard lumbering around in the background.
After the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, at the earliest, they might start to negotiate peace. The likelihood of a "dream ticket" now: unthinkable. The likelihood then? Perhaps unavoidable.
A fight to the death, goes the conventional wisdom, only helps the enemy. The death of Choi Yo Sam was a case in point. He died, and the man he beat went on living. While his heart was still pumping, doctors took it out of the coma patient for a transplant.
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