11/02/2007 01:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Potential Theme for Edwards? "The Politics of Unity" vs. "The Politics of Division"

If this week's post-debate debate has proved anything, it's that Hillary Clinton is consciously using the Politics of Division as a strategy. She's tried to divide men against women and treat-us-the-same feminists against go-easy-on-us feminists. Any progressive who challenges her on substance can be pigeonholed as a "Hillary hater" and kept after school with the sexists.

This week she's accused her opponents (except Richardson) of ganging up on her. She's used the "one tough woman" spin relentlessly (which Tim Grieve brilliantly dissected with a simple question: What if Obama had been in her shoes and responded he's "one tough black man" against five whites?) She's found more than enough minions in the blogs and the media to spin her narrative, creating a level of dissonance and friction that hasn't been seen in the Democratic Party since Vietnam.

All in three days. And all to spin a lackluster debate performance. What will happen when things get really rough? If she keeps this up she's going to fracture her party.

This cynical strategy, the Politics of Division, may have been inevitable given Mark Penn's leadership role. Penn's a smart guy, but his entire strategic foundation - the concept of "microtrends" - is basically a rhetorical and analytical framework for an older and much simpler concept: Divide and conquer.

After all, a candidate can always choose between issues that galvanize large groups and those that appeal to narrowly-defined segments of the population. A large majority of voters want us out of Iraq. But if you're a politician who's closely tied with the "bipartisan" machine that got us into Iraq, it's more comfortable to avoid that sort of broad-based movement in favor of pitting small groups against one another.

When you divide the population into so many subgroups, you can pick and choose those groups that reflect your own interests and ideology and pretend it's just "the numbers" talking. Although Ezra Klein explains the statistically meaningless nature of "microtrending" in his review of Penn's book on the topic, Penn was using his "numbers" routine less than 24 hours after the debate to say that he was "detecting some backlash" among women voters. (No documentation or methodology was provided.)

Clinton and Penn have also used the Politics of Parsing, another Microtrends-driven approach that says in effect "Don't offend Group A, and send covert signals to Group B ..." This has even influenced her stance on torture, which we addressed some time ago and which Mark Benjamin investigates at length here. (Oh, wait. He's a "boy." That means we can ignore his points and dismiss them as part of the "pile on.")

I'm not supporting any candidate, and have tried to remain open to all of them. That should and did include Clinton, but she keeps alienating my particular demographic group. That would be the one that wants to end the war, stop torture, end the upward redistribution of wealth, restore democracy, and defend the Constitution.

That is to say, most Americans. (Call us a "Macrotrend.") That's why, even though Hillary's crushing her opponents in the primary polls, she's a general election drag in a critical state like California.

Which gets us to Edwards. His positions appeal to many of us in the anti-Iraq, pro-economic fairness Macrotrend. But many have stayed clear of his campaign out of concern that he might come across as too facile - and because he was beginning to look like a candidate who can't duck a punch. (Here's how he should have responded to the haircut story immediately: "I didn't get a $400 haircut, I paid the guy extra money to come across town because I was out campaigning." It was left to Norman Lear to find that out, and his clarification got almost no press play.)

Edwards was, however, very effective Tuesday night. He skirted a little too close to rhetorical overkill by pressing the "leave this mess to our children" theme once too often, but he stepped back. And he pressed his case without seeming rude (except to the professional-victim-when-it-suits-them Microtrenders).

So here's an opening for Edwards: Obama wanted to use something like the Politics of Unity as a theme, but as a soft-focus, gauze-over-the-camera-lens concept. He now needs to define himself more sharply and clearly (think 1992 Bill Clinton - more here.) That excludes the unity theme for the moment. In the meantime, Edwards can hammer away at the idea that Clinton is promoting the Politics of Division. And he can present a vision of political unity that's more muscular, one that's based on three simple and potentially popular themes:

1. Straight talk and fast action on Iraq
2. Respect for the freedoms that make us America
3. Economic and political justice for all

In other words, Edwards has a chance to present the politics of progressivism as the Politics of Unity. Will he do it? That's unclear. There's more that he could do to seize the moment, too,. But one thing is clear: Edwards now has an opening to define himself, rather than Obama, as the anti-Hillary.

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