What Are Democrats Fighting About?

Washington Matters

What Are Democrats Fighting About?

With a truce called in the odd quarrel between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, it's worth looking at the subtext that sparked the clash in the first place. The underlying argument is perhaps the defining issue of the battle between the two Democratic front-runners -- and at the heart of the debate over the future direction of the Democratic Party itself.

The sniping over whether it was the civil rights movement or determined politicians in Washington who produced the civil rights act of 1964 and the subsequent voting rights act in 1965 is really just part of a discussion over how to govern and how to make change. Obama is making an eloquent and passionate case for nothing less than visionary and inspirational leadership that helps a divided nation set aside its differences to tackle its multitude of problems. He sees a need to develop consensus in government, but sees building popular support for key goals as crucial to doing so. Clinton, like her husband a decade and a half ago, is offering herself as a pragmatist who knows how to push and pull the levers of power needed to turn grand ideas into actual policy.

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Both approaches have powerful appeal to elements of the Democratic Party base -- especially since their is little difference between the two on issues and general enthusiasm for both.

Clinton wants to build on the foundation laid by her husband, who rescued a party that had become so captive of liberal interest groups in the late 1980s it had become nearly irrelevant to a majority of voters. Bill Clinton reshaped the party and its image and won back moderates and independents with his "Third Way" – a nuts and bolts approach that downplayed ideology; embraced or at least welcomed differing opinions on divisive social issues such as capital punishment and gun control; and addressed traditional Democratic concerns for those struggling with "a hand up, not a hand out." And he embraced incrementalism and politics as the art of the possible -- focusing on small-bore projects that had bipartisan appeal and crafting grander compromises that were part consensus and part old fashioned horse-trading by various interests and ideologies.


Obama reaches back much further -- to the JFK era where sweeping and ambitious visions could be realized through unity of purpose. Obama doesn't dismiss the need for pragmatism or experience, but says far more than that is needed in a time where huge challenges go unaddressed because of partisan division. Obama, whose roots are in neighborhood organizing, argues that real accomplishment can come only with a change of political attitude that focuses on national unity and renewed optimism, not specific partisan or ideological goals. And in his view, that unity can come from powerful leadership that calls Americans together behind a set of national ideals.

The party is torn by the two choices. Clinton is especially appealing to many party stalwarts and a broad swath of Democrats and Democratic interest groups who are sick of losing and fear their priorities will continue to erode if they do. But Obama has an infectious quality and excitement factor that has many Democrats ready to take a risk on a campaign rooted deeply in idealism as well as specific policy goals. He has backing from unions who believe he'll protect workers, from younger voters exhausted by bickering and inspired by his sense of mission and idealism and from party veterans -- both liberal and conservative -- who are sick of the paralysis caused by intense partisanship. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska is the most conservative Democrat in the Senate -- a frequent swing vote that has consistently helped President Bush achieve his objectives over the past seven years -- who doubtlessly disagrees with Obama on multiple issues. Yet he has endorsed him because of his vision of tackling problems through a less partisan lens.

Expect these two candidates to keep hammering at and fine-tuning their approach. Hillary Clinton will be saying, in essence, that she has the experience to be trusted with the keys to the car that is government. Obama will argue that government is just one aspect of national will and that it's time to build a car fueled by renewed American vigor.

Watch for the candidate who finds a way keep his or her message intact while encroaching on the other's territory. The winner is bound to be the one who persuades most Democrats that their brand of leadership is both pragmatic enough and visionary enough to steer part the Republicans in the fall.