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Monsters in the Democratic Id

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET

"Monsters from the id!" That's what Dr. Morbius shouts at the end of of Forbidden Planet, as he tries to shut down the alien engines of destruction he's learned to power with his thoughts. His subsconscious urges and desires have started destroying the deep-space paradise he's built, and he can't stop it. Dr. Morbius came to mind as I watched the Democrats try to dial down on the wellsprings of emotion that were triggered by the last few weeks of campaigning. In last night's debate they did a pretty good job of it.

First it was sexism, and the claim that "bully boys" were trying to keep Hillary out of the treehouse. I couldn't find any concrete examples of gender insensitivity from the candidates themselves (except the Edwards 'tear' remark, for which he has apologized.) There are horrific ones in the media, however, and they've colored the campaign.

Then came the cascade of controversial racial comments -- whether accidental or not -- from the Clinton camp. Last month it was Clinton confidante Bob Kerrey and his "Hussein Obama with his Muslim father (who wasn't)" remarks while Mark Penn kept repeating the word "cocaine." That could have been a couple of guys just wandering off the reservation, but then the clearly angry Clintons promised to get rough on Obama after Iowa. They did.

A series of controversial statements came in quick succession. For her MLK comments, read this letter from Dr. King's lawyer for perspective and then consider: the Clintons are not racists, but they do want to win. Couldn't this just have been poor phrasing? Maybe - but then came the campaign staffer's comment that Obama voters only like him because they want a "hip black friend," as if a vote for Barack was no different from downloading a Cody Chesnutt song as a ringtone for your Razr.

And maybe that was accidental, too, but then came Bob Johnson making not one but two odious statements - the now-denied but unmistakable drug reference, and his underrreported comment that Obama's "a guy who says, 'I want to be a reasonable, likable, Sidney Poitier Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Or, in sixties parlance, an Uncle Tom. (This is the same Bob Johnson who pushes some very right wing agendas for his own interests, and makes his money pushes dope-and-bling videos that sexually degrade women and transmit sick values to kids.)

I could be wrong about the pattern. The entire team, with its mantra of "experience," could suddenly have become accident-prone when it comes to racial statements. But there are books on subliminal messaging in politics, and the Clintons have read them. I think they wanted to defuse the "Obama/MLK" association with some subtle language. But it went out of control, because they miscalculated the depths of the wounds in the party's psyche. As a result, even remarks that I believe were innocent (like that odd "Gandhi was a gas station attendant in St. Louis" quip) were taken as coded race-baiting. And whatever the reasons for their remarks, Bob Johnson and that unnamed staffer are still on the team.

Why bring up LBJ?? Because, apparently, the Clintons identify with Lyndon's gifts as an arm-twisting Washington insider -- and perhaps, more disturbingly, with his alienation from the party base. LBJ was an extraordinary politician who did a lot for American politics -- but he was also financed throughout his career by Brown and Root, Halliburton's ancestor company. And he lost his presidency because he wouldn't stop supporting a pointless war. He's not the right phantom to summon up from the Democractic psyche right now, especially for the Clintons. It seems to be a way of saying to the idealists: "Forget it, Barack (or John). It's Chinatown."

But here's the good news: Whether you think it was accidental or not, and whether you think both sides did it equally or that it was asymmetrical warfare, expect it to stop as quickly as it started. It was clear from the debate last night that Clinton and Obama have signed a non-aggression pact. This race debate, and the charges of gender bias that preceded it, have triggered so much buried rage and resentment among Democrats that it threatens to split the party and leave it weakened for the general elections. So if you prefer to think of these incidents as isolated accidents, great. But expect a lot less of them.

As for that media sexism against Hillary: It's hideous and ghastly, and some liberal Dems say we should vote for her to counter it. I'd respectfully suggest that there are good reasons to advocate for Sen. Clinton, but that's not one of them. Even James Wolcott gets into the act, approvingly citing this quote:

"Every vote for Hillary is a knife in the heart for Maureen Dowd."

Hardly a positive reason for voting, I'd say. I can imagine all sorts of things that might be "a knife in the heart for Maureen Dowd," but that doesn't make me want to do them.

Sen. Clinton did what she needed to do last night. Some of us have been telling her for months that attacking Obama will backfire. So will trotting out people like Madeleine Albright, deplored by many Dems for her cold-blooded remarks about Iraqi children. So do comments from her insiders that suggest idealism is foolish. Americans don't want their leader and her staff to come 'pre-cynicized' (or should I call it "cynical idealism"?)

Hillary has to repair the wounds and disappointment her base voters felt when they looked to her and Bill to slow the war fever of 2003. Attacks on Barack or idealism just make it worse, while invoking Lyndon Johnson comes off as another way of saying "Forget it, voters. It's Chinatown."

Nobody has more of a right to be bitter and hardened than the Clintons and their inner circle. The right-wing treated them more brutally than any group of people on the planet. But voters want their leaders to care about them, and about the downtrodden, not themselves -- as I believe the Clinton campaign is learning. They don't want the White House to simmer with half-buried rage like the House of Usher, trembling with emotion in the light of a blood-red moon. That package just doesn't sell with the voters.

As for Mahatma Gandhi, she shouldn't use the quote she did: "First they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." She came into this race with a powerful machine behind her, and nobody was laughing. It would be a lot more reassuring if voters heard this Gandhi quote from her instead: "You must be the change you wish to see in the world. "

It might help quiet those monsters from the Id.

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