With less than a year to Election Day 2008, many of us are edgily counting down the days to the Democratic sweep. Polling tells us that in a general election, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards would win North Carolina! Kentucky! Virginia! And even Alabama and Oklahoma with the right mix of candidates!
History, as always, dampens our enthusiasm, and in this case more so than normally. Not so long ago, who thought George W. Bush had a chance against Al Gore? I know it didn't occur to me at all. In fact, I COMPLETELY understood the Nader nuts because Gore was going to win anyway and we needed to make a statement about the environment (!), civil rights, and capitalism generally.
This was a difficult and not particularly enlightening experience. But one that painfully reminded us that the Democratic Party has not been the party of the majority of this country for a long time, if ever, at least among those who can and do vote.
Since the founding of the Republican Party in the 1850s, only three Democrats have won more than 50% of the presidential vote, as well as the electoral college. And this has only happened on the heels of the Great Depression, World War II, the Kennedy assassination and Watergate.
Of course, it is possible to fall short of an absolute majority of the popular vote, even lose it, and still become president, as Bush so aptly illustrated in 2000. And by and large the Democratic and Republican parties of several decades, let alone a century ago, have evolved into very different creatures (thankfully for the former).
But what does it tell us that Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton could not get half the country (plus one) to vote for them? And that at the same time, both Bushes and Richard Nixon, among the most recently victorious Republicans, achieved a sometimes solid absolute majority of the popular vote?
Democrats have struggled for years to figure this out. The mot du jour is, once again, electability. This may have been understandable after some of the more notorious debacles of the 1970s and 1980s in which primary voters went with their heart (George McGovern, Walter Mondale). But recent history has not been kind to the lucid crowd. After all, John Kerry was seen as the rational, experienced, safe choice of primary Democratic voters in 2004; in truth, had they picked Al Sharpton, they would have ended with the same thing: a loss. In 2000, Gore was the most risk-averse choice Democrats had made in decades and yet he too went down to defeat.
Electability is a concept that makes many progressive voters uncomfortable, as it should. Not only because it usually means excruciating political compromise, but, as evidenced by Kerry and Gore, it's so often for nothing. Even the most eager poll followers cannot predict 6 to 10 months before a general election (when most primaries take place) who is likely to fare best come November. There are too many unknowns, starting with the Republican nominee. Many times, Democrats have looked forward to facing a sure loser, not unlike the younger Bush, only to be bitterly disappointed. Right now, Mitt Romney looks like a delectable general election opponent: polls show him losing every single state surveyed against pretty much any leading Democrat. But a closer look is sobering: the scary flip-flopping robot has come from far behind to lead in every early Republican primary state. Would you rather face him, or lazybones Fred Thompson?
So, yes, we know that Hillary Clinton would most likely fare better against any Republican nominee than, say, Dennis Kucinich, but do we really know whether she'd be stronger than four or five of the other Democratic primary contestants? No, and we shouldn't care. With such an unusually attractive field, Democrats should enjoy the moment, vote with their hearts and, for once, feel secure in their choice. Even if Clinton is the nominee.
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