01/20/2008 11:02 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Divisive Democratic Competitions

When Jesse Jackson made his memorable run for the presidential nomination in 1988, the year that Michael Dukakis was nominated, there was considerable excitement and respect for the Jackson candidacy, and the party managed to run united in the fall, in an election that unfortunately, Dukakis lost (with G.H.W. Bush winning 40 States).

Other than that one presidential election, when Jackson captured 6.9 million primary votes and won 11 states, including 7 primaries (Alabama, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Puerto Rico and Virginia), and 4 caucuses (Delaware, Michigan, South Carolina and Vermont), the Democratic party has been used to seeing a white, Christian male at the top of the ticket. Fights over which white man could be bitter, and when focused on issues, such as the Vietnam War, they could divide the party, but they rarely touched the aspirations of the constituency of Democrats as deeply as this year.

It is both a blessing and a curse that the Democratic party is determined to put someone other than a white man at the top of the ticket. It is blessing, because it will finally end some shameful era of exclusion. But is a curse because there is only one place at the top of the ticket, and assuming there is not a new leader for a brokered convention, either Hillary or Obama will lose, and watch the other candidate lead the party.

Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama are both excellent candidates for the Democratic party, and many persons will welcome either as the nominee. Others are going to be deeply disappointed, in a way that could be extremely damaging to the Democratic party efforts in the fall, not only for the presidential election, but also for the Congress and states and local elections.

So far, this election is very close, with perceptions of who is leading changing daily if not hourly. The candidates and even more so, their closest supporters, have engaged in increasingly raw and bitter exchanges. The candidates are both competitors who like to win, so this is almost inevitable, and it is not particularly constructive at this point to argue over who is being the most negative about their opponents. Let's just stipulate that the trajectory is not promising, if you want a candidate in the fall that anyone, including Democratic voters, will admire.

The Democratic party rank-and-file, however, could do more to bring the rancor down a notch. People can start by not putting the candidates on pedestals. Neither Hillary nor Obama are perfect. Both are highly political and ambitious people (who else gets this far?), and both will make plenty of mistakes in the campaigns, or as president, if they get that far. They are human, like everyone else who runs for this job.

Find a way to recognize and respect some qualities in the candidate you don't support, and acknowledge some of the flaws in the one you do, and you will be better prepared to support the eventual nominee.

One should not assume the Republican party will simply hand the election to the nominee. Democrats will, in all likelihood, nominate a woman or a black man at the top of the ticket, and ask the country to end centuries of exclusion. This will be hard enough for a party that is united, but much harder if core constituencies feel both disappointed and disrespected.