As there is no compelling case for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama to quit the field, the long and torturous Democratic primary process shall wend its way to Pennslyvania, perhaps to Puerto Rico, with a possible U-turn back to Florida and Michigan as well. What does it mean for the Democrats that John McCain has secured his place in the race while their two candidates continue to hack away at the process? Well, if you are a Democratic strategist with no particular loyalty to either Clinton or Obama, you're probably brightsiding the process along these lines: with all eyes on the Democratic race, it's an opportunity for the Democratic party to continue pushing their message, their values, and there issues out into the public sphere.
The fullest explication of this point of view was offered yesterday evening in a column in the New York Times from former Gore Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who says:
A continued and hard-fought primary battle between the Clinton and Obama campaigns -- a race that now involves strange lawyer-to-lawyer debates -- has some risks for Democratic prospects in November, but I think the benefits outweigh those dangers. My downplaying of that risk is subject to a change of heart depending on just how long the race goes on, and precisely how it ends. But for now, the continuation of the Democratic contest advantages the Democrats in at least four important respects.
Klain's four main points, and they are well argued, basically boil down to the following:
1. The prolonged battle between Clinton and Obama will ensure the winner emerges "tested."
2. The candidates are getting better at debating.
3. Turnout among Democrats remains high, and that trend will likely continue.
4. Most importantly, "Democrats will own the stage. In national politics, sometimes the toughest competitor is apathy and inattention, not your opponent. In most presidential campaigns, when March rolls around, every day begins with a long meeting aimed at one question: How can we get our candidate on the news tonight? The Obama and Clinton campaigns won't have that problem, but the McCain campaign almost certainly will."
This all has the ring of sound reasoning, but Klain overlooks something important. The media will be the chief amplifier of the storyline. And the Democrats would be sitting pretty if the media were interested in leading a robust debate on issues, but what's already clear is that the media is poised to mainly report on process. Delegate counts, backroom wranglings, campaign ads, mis-statements, reseating delegations, endorsements...these are the stories you can anticipate getting the lion's share of coverage. And these stories do not amplify Democratic Party "issues," they amplify Democratic Party impediments.
It's true: the candidates are getting better at debating, but the debate is likely to change. Chances are good that a televised debate could get scheduled between now and the Pennsylvania primary, and sure, this will give both candidates a chance to re-explain their differences on health care, trade, the housing crisis, and the Iraq War. But I expect that going forward, we'll hear a set of different questions. How should the superdelegates vote? What should happen with Florida and Michigan? Will a "dream ticket" emerge to forestall a brokered convention? In the last debate, Tim Russert and Brian Williams played clips of Hillary Clinton - her conciliatory statement at the end of the previous debate, her anger at Obama's mailers, her "celestial choirs" lampoon - and asked her to respond to them. This did not represent an opportunity to debate an issue - this forced Clinton to respond to a news story.
And if process remains a pre-eminent concern of the Fourth Estate, that means fewer opportunities for the Democratic candidates to hit McCain, who is well on his way to passing his own tests. And remember: the media remains sick with "Fair and Balanced" disease. They will find a way to work some McCain coverage into the daily schedule. And heck, if McCain wants to demonstrate his fealty to conservatives as an enthusiast of small government, all he needs to do is continually ridicule this Democratic primary process.
Of course, neither candidate will be quitting anytime soon, so where does this leave Klain and his colleagues? Well, there are things the Democratic Party can do right now to get themselves unstuck. A pathway for Florida and Michigan to get back into the process needs to be forged yesterday. Whatever process has to happen to bring these "add-on" delegates into the field needs to be sped up. And the superdelegates must start making commitments: they've all seen both candidates at their best and worst, and their policy positions are known quantities, so there's no compelling reason why they can't render their decision with all deliberate speed. Even if questions remain, why wait until June? The superdelegates can follow the pro-active example of these Ohio superdelegates who are demanding a concrete plan for job retention in return for their decision.
All of these moves will benefit the Democratic candidates and the party itself by removing these uncertainties from the table and giving the media a lot less process to discuss. And of course, Democratic party officials need to spend less time talking about how the process is going to help them make their case, and more time making that case themselves.
A chance to cut is a chance to cure, and it's time to start cutting.