Imagine the scene at the Democratic National Convention. A triumphant Barack Obama stands onstage. To his left stands John Kerry, to his right Al Gore. Next to Gore stands Jimmy Carter. Ted Kennedy stands next to John Kerry.
There is a lot of hope for an Obama-fueled "new Democratic majority" that can ignore the great unwashed--the dwindling number of white working class voters they used to call "Reagan Democrats." The suggestion that Democrats cannot win without them is ridiculed as "inside the beltway" nonsense. However, a Brookings Institution paper by Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz reiterates this group's significance to winning an electoral college majority in 2008:
During this year's Democratic primary season, Hillary Clinton has generally run far ahead of Barack Obama among white working class voters (though there are signs this may be changing). But due to the structure of the Democratic primary electorate, with its heavy minority and college-educated representation, this has not translated into electoral dominance and her campaign is now in serious trouble.
The story will be different in the November general election however. Here the voting proclivities of the white working class will make a huge difference and could well determine who the next president will be.
In a later interview, Teixeira makes clear that Obama can still make up a winning coalition, but the Obama camp is obviously, wisely, taking no chances. They're now working hard to win this group. The lapel pin has reappeared, and the candidate has developed a sudden penchant for bowling. Demonstrating how much stock they place in this demographic, the opposition is trying to keep it out of reach. They're attacking Obama as "not one of us," which is a none-too-subtle fix of their addiction to racism and tagging Democrats as elitist and out-of-touch with "real Americans." As we all know, real Americans are white, working-class Americans.
This is going to be a tough race and Obama needs every state he can get if he's to collect 270 electoral votes. Now, let's return to that convention scene:
Republicans, with a generous hand from the media, successfully painted John Kerry as elitist and out-of-touch. In 2004, he lost the white working-class vote to George Bush by 23 points. He ran an embarrassing presidential campaign, and since, has not distinguished himself as a spokesperson for Democratic or progressive ideals. In short, when it came to national office, he lost--badly.
Al Gore's post-political career has been extraordinary, culminating in a Nobel Prize. However, as a candidate he was also (with a generous hand from the press) labeled elitist and out-of-touch. Let's face it. He was a sitting vice president who lost a campaign that was his to lose.
Jimmy Carter also boasts an admirable post-presidential career with a Nobel of his own. However, he was an unpopular, ineffectual one-term president whose stewardship is considered a failure.
Ted Kennedy represents the last of the Kennedy political dynasty. He has been an extraordinarily effective senator. However, he remains representative of presidential promise unfulfilled. The Kennedy legacy, to which he has anointed Obama something of a successor, is a legacy of great national promise--tragically unfulfilled.
On that stage, Obama would be surrounded by a group of men, each extraordinary in his own right, but each of whom failed to connect emotionally with a politically significant swath of the American public and whom the opposition successfully belittled and bested (with big helping hands from the press). That picture would speak one thousand words. It would paint Obama as their candidate successor.
Think what you will of him, there is only one living Democratic presidential politician who connected emotionally (and maintained that connection) with broad swaths of the American electorate--across all racial and class lines. He won the presidency--twice--and did it during the apex of the Republican ascendancy. He even eked out a victory among the white working class, despite Ross Perot's third party appeal to this group.
Now that we're talking realignment, it's progressively fashionable to pooh pooh his presidency for relying on center-right Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) policies. In doing so, the logic goes, he failed to lay the groundwork for a new progressive majority. Obama himself suggested as much in saying, "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America, in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not."
Maybe the DLC way was the only way to win at the time. Maybe it wasn't. That doesn't matter anymore. What does matter is ensuring that the Obama camp not help McCain paint him as the ineffectual Kerry-ite successor to feckless McGovern-ism.
Despite his sometimes, ahem... eccentric electioneering this season, Bill Clinton still casts the winner's long, deep shadow. He can still connect with important constituencies like the elderly and the white working class. He can still appeal to the latter group, and every other, by speaking to expanding economic opportunity in something other than the abstract--because he accomplished it.
A Bill Clinton in the distant background will only highlight the recent Democratic history of failed, "weak" and "elite" Democratic presidential contenders and cast Obama as yet another. It will cast him as successor to a legacy tragically unfulfilled. Bill in the foreground paints him as a successor to prosperity and success. Bill in the foreground helps highlight the post-presidential accomplishments of a Carter and a Gore, instead of highlighting campaign and high office failures simply through the lack of any countervailing electoral narratives onstage.
Symbols matter. Elections are as much about perceptions as issues. Yes, there's bad blood between Obama and the Clintons, and judging from his initial attempts to secure the Edwards endorsement, Obama does not grovel well. But once Hillary Clinton is securely put away, Obama will need Bill, so I suggest he improve his groveling. Hell, he secured that lapel pin and got that bowling ball down the lane, didn't he? When the prize is as big as the presidency, you don't leave any assets on the table.