Molehill Politics

The Democrats didn’t expect so much pain. The assumption was that out of a patch of good candidates one would emerge to take on an inevitably weak Republican—the field was seen as lacking and George Bush as a drag on the party—and defeat him in what everyone knew was a Democratic year. But this has been the year of the unexpected. Now, anguished Democratic Party leaders fear that the increasingly bloody struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will continue until the end of the primaries or, worse, play out further at their convention in late August—which could only benefit the Republicans’ putative, and unexpected, nominee, John McCain.

The Democrats’ contest has changed from simply a fierce fight for “pledged delegates,” who are elected in the primaries and caucuses, which Obama is winning, into a battle to convince the as-yet-uncommitted superdelegates which candidate would be stronger in the general election—regardless of who has won the most pledged delegates. This is an issue injected into the contest by the Clinton campaign. Mathematically, there now appears to be no way for Clinton to catch up to Obama in pledged delegates; the final decision will be made by the superdelegates, who are under extreme pressure from both sides.

In this fight, the Clinton camp is the more aggressive of the two, and it’s adept at what might be called molehill politics: making a very big deal in the press about something that’s a very small deal—such as a single word in a mailing or a slip-up by an aide. Clinton’s strategists pounce on whatever opportunity presents itself to attack Obama, and try to knock him off his own message, and his stride. Clinton’s approach resembles her tactics in the White House, in which her inclination was to attack (which caused a number of problems, and was one of the reasons her health care bill was defeated). The Obama camp has sometimes been slow, and even reluctant, to respond, because if he attacks her personally (which the Clinton campaign would like him to do), he’s not Barack Obama anymore. Moreover, Obama takes care not to come across as the “angry black”—a stereotype he does not fit, but that could be imposed upon him by others.

While it’s true that the two remaining Democratic candidates have few substantive differences, they have very different approaches to campaigning, which give us clues about the differences in how they would govern—and that, after all, is what this whole thing is, or should be, about. It’s useful to try to imagine these people in the White House, and, from their campaigning, to try to figure what they will be like there: how they will use power; how well they would sustain their appeal over a considerable period of time.

It’s been long said among politicians that “the Clintons will do anything to win.” Unfortunately, they are increasingly proving the point. As the primaries in Texas and Ohio approached, the Clinton campaign, which has a tendency to announce its next…

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