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Richard (RJ) Eskow Headshot

Running Against the Base - Hillary, Obama, and the Democrats' High-Risk Strategy

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"We're all Sistah Souljah now." At least, those committed people who form the base of the Democratic Party might be forgiven for thinking that. The Party's leading Presidential and Vice-Presidential contenders seem committed to running against the interests and values of their core constituents. It's a very risky strategy - for them, and for their party.

Many will recall Sistah Souljah, a relatively obscure political rapper who was propelled into national fame by then-candidate Bill Clinton's condemnation of her in 1992. It was a quick way for Clinton to position himself as a "New Democrat" who was mainstream, moderate, and "just like you and me" in his values (that is, of course, if "you and I" are suburban and middle-class.)

The centrist approach worked for Bill Clinton in '92, but things were different then (including a three-candidate race). And, as I've written before, Bill Clinton didn't win because of his triangulation strategy, he won because he's Bill Clinton. (See The Elvis Impersonators.)

In addition, Clinton picked a marginal figure in attacking Sistah Souljah. Today's Democrats are going against their core constituency.

Barack Obama is widely considered the front-runner for the VP slot should Hillary Clinton capture the nomination in '08. His recent endorsement of right-winger Joe Lieberman in the presence of liberal challenger Ned Lamont was a calculated slap - not only toward the liberal blogosphere, which has warmly endorse Lamont, but toward the great numbers of mainline Democrats who have been alienated by Lieberman's zealous support for the stumbling war effort.

Obama may have been paying Lieberman off for some favors, but he was also sending a message to the Party's insiders that says "I'm one of you." He's been doing that since he voted to confirm Condi Rice. In addition, he was sending a message to the commentariat that he's not "crashing the gate." He was signaling instead that he's an insider politician who - never fear, Mr. Russert et al - will play the game the ways it's always been played.

This "Run Against the Democrats" strategy is also reflected by Hillary Clinton's recent moves to run to the right of the Republicans on the issue of war with Iran, following on years of equivocation about her vote to support the invasion of Iraq. Party loyalists also recall here statements (during a February 2005 visit to Iraq with John McCain) that the insurgency was "failing" and that things were "going well" there.

The current Congressional re-election campaign being waged under the leadership of Rahm Emanuel reflects Emanuel's infamous comment that the party's leadership will take a position on Iraq "when the time is right." His "had enough?" strategy to point out the complicity of the GOP Congress in many of Bush's bad decisions, while downplaying those occasions when the Democrats have done the same.

The GOP Congress' failures have been become so apparent this year that the Dems are likely to pick up some seats while using this so-called "competence" strategy. This may give the impression that the "run against the Democrats" approach is worth pursuing in 2008, further encouraging a repeat of the "anti-Dem" strategy in 2008.

There are number of risks for the party here. One is the fact that Presidential elections are decided far more on the basis of character and trust than are other elections. Like most voters, I'm more comfortable with a politician who sincerely disagrees with me about an issue (even a critical one like Iraq) than I am with one who appears calculating and cynical in the pursuit of my vote.

Another concern is having an energized base. The Democratic base may not perceive a "clear and present danger" in '08 the way they did in '04. If not, they may stay home or go to a third party rather than be slighted once again by their party's leadership.

I'm winding up a 10-day multi-state trip, and committed Democrats are close to despair everywhere I go. Their belief is that they are being rejected by the party leadership, that leading Democrats no longer speak for (or to) them, that their votes are taken for granted, and that their future within the party is grim.

I think they're right.

Democrats who fought against third-party candidacies in past elections are now speaking openly about defecting to a new party should the Dems run Clinton/Obama or similar candidates, their present rhetoric unchanged. This is a real threat to the Democrats' chances in '08 and beyond.

A Clinton/Obama ticket will energize the Republican base, no matter how "centrist" they try to be. An energized opposition and a disheartened base is a recipe for Democratic failure. In addition, the alienation of core Democratic voters could degrade the party's infrastructure for decades to come.

That's a high price to pay for the misguided ambitions of some calculating politicians. (And, in my opinion, they're miscalculating politicians.) Whoever the candidates are in 2008, they should think carefully before making "Sistah Soujahs" out of those voters who comprise their party's heart and soul.

A Night Light