Thursday, June 12, 2008

It's Now All About Respect

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By Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin

How can a party so divided, repair itself in time for the November election? The answer is simple -- concentrate on fundamentals no more complicated than the Golden Rule. If Obama supporters want the votes of Clinton supporters, they had better not take them for granted. A Clinton voter and an Obama voter team up to try to help Obama supporters understand Clinton supporters, why they feel so insulted, and how the Obama camp can offer them the real respect they deserve.

Right now, one of the political parties is deeply divided and the other is more united than it has been in years. It is important to remember which one is which. The Democrats and Republicans each started the campaign season with a half dozen, or so, serious candidates, but as the early debates made clear, there were important differences between the Republican candidates on some of the issues at that party's core, while the Democrats struggled to find any differences at all.

As the Republicans settled on John McCain, many Republicans fretted about whether he is really a Republican at all given his positions on issues such as taxes, global warming, and immigration. As the Democrats narrowed their choice to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, all but their most enthusiastic supporters agree that the issue differences between them are barely worth talking about, at least not any more than they already have been.

That this situation now appears to be almost the reverse is entirely due to the differences between the parties in their delegate selection rules. The Republican rules, based on their Hobbesian, survival-of-the-fittest world view, featured mostly winner-take-all contests that may have given McCain the nomination faster than needed to work through the real political differences within the Republican Party.

The Democratic proportional delegate allocation rules, on the other hand, seemed to reflect the philosophy embodied in the New Games movement of the 1970's, where nobody loses, but this time we learned that when nobody loses it can also mean nobody wins. The rules kept the contest close; even when Obama was able to string together 11 state victories in a row, he was not able to post a delegate lead big enough to force Clinton out, nor was Clinton able to pile up a large delegate advantage through her wins in many of the big states.

As the Democratic primaries stretched on, though, the small issue differences have grown into entrenched personal animosity, and respectful competition has come to resemble a barroom brawl. The candidates and their closest advisors have slipped into ridicule and sarcasm at times, but for the most part, they have tried, especially recently, to chart a more courteous course. However, relations between the two campaigns' supporters have grown increasingly toxic. On the editorial pages, the cable talking head shows, in offices, families, and informal debating societies, and most fiercely on the blogs and on the streets outside political events like this weekend's Democratic Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting here in Washington; the intra-party partisans are angry and mutually insulting. And it is here that a change in the dynamic is most necessary for Democratic victory in November.

Despite many optimistic statements from the candidates and party leaders, true healing of the anger and hurt feelings will be quite difficult for some of the candidate's most enthusiastic supporters - and this is as true of Obama's supporters as it is of Clinton's. The "I told you so-s" of Obama supporters are no more focused on winning in November than the take-my-ball-and-go-home threats of Clinton supporters. Both are symptoms of aggrieved feelings that cannot just be willed away by references to party loyalty or the challenge ahead.

By winning the nomination, Obama supporters may feel that they have gained the upper hand in debates with Hillary supporters, but this is a false perception. This campaign is not over until the race is over. Political campaigns can never afford the luxury of feeling superior to anyone. Obama may have won the nomination but it will mean nothing if he does not win the General Election in November, and to do that he needs the votes and even the enthusiastic support of Hillary and her supporters. Clinton's supporters cannot be insulted, bullied, or guilted into enthusiastic support in the fall. Like any other key voting bloc, Obama and his supporters can only gain these votes by understanding Clinton's supporters' real concerns, making a connection with them and making a compelling case for their support.

We have no doubt that Barack Obama will personally offer Hillary Clinton his deep respect and ask for her support, and she will respond with her enthusiastic endorsement. But Obama supporters are not as reliably likely to think deeply and clearly about their real feeling toward the life-long Democrats who make up the backbone of Hillary's electoral success. Hillary's supporters' threats to back McCain, or more likely sit the contest out, are more than just idle.

Leaving the question of Hillary's support among blue-collar workers, Hispanics, and Jews for a future discussion, we are talking about Clinton's base among mostly white, mostly college educated, mostly over-40 women, or to put it another way, the women who grew up in the women's movement, and then turned much of that energy toward electing Democrats. In a lot of communities across America, if you call a meeting of the top Democratic officials and reliable campaign workers, that's who will show up. But they will not show up to be insulted, and consciously or unconsciously, Obama supporters have been relentless in insulting this group throughout this extended campaign.

Some Obama supporters profess ignorance that their side has engaged in any political attacks, but at best, this is simple insensitivity. Most conflict is based on differences in perception and Clinton's supporters perceive aggression in what they hear coming from Obama supporters. Specifically, there are three areas where Obama supporters need to look at their current posture and messages and prove that "change" is not an empty promise of a "new politics" by changing their message to something more welcoming, inclusive, and respectful.

First, stop labeling Clinton and her supporters as the politics of the past. Obama supporters have enthusiastically cheered their candidate's inspiring calls for new approaches to old problems, but the implicit, and frequently explicit, denigration of Clinton as representing the politics of the past cuts deeper with Clinton supporters than many Obama supporters may realize. The message from the Obama campaign and supporters has been that Clinton and her supporters are sooooo last century. For all the ink that has been given to discussions of the racism and sexism that has emerged in this campaign, the ageism, while far less noticed, may pack just as much psychological and political sting.

The Obama campaign has proved the experts wrong through massive turnout of young voters (among other categories) to counter Clinton's strength among older voters, especially women, but there is little merit in writing off any category of Democrats or independents heading into the fall election. Retooling for November will require broadening the appeal of Obama's change message to show how it includes older voters, women, and other categories that Clinton won in the primaries. The truth is Clinton and her supporters are just as much a part of the politics of the present and the future as anyone else, and Obama and his supporters need to change the change message to make this clear.

Second, Democrats need to reclaim the luster of the Clinton years. It is easy to understand why the Obama camp believed it had to counter the notion that the period from 1992 to 2000 was bathed in a golden light. Obama and his supporters, while never trying to describe the Clinton presidency as a failure, have nonetheless damned it with faint praise, or worse, reminded us of what we liked least about the Clintons' time in office. As we move from primary to general election mode, however, it in the interest of every Democrat to lay claim to all that is good about the Clinton legacy.

Obama and his supporters have helped put Bill Clinton through a pretty tough winter and spring (In truth, he did a lot of the damage to himself) but all Democrats will benefit if Bill and Hillary Clinton have a much better summer and fall. The Clinton Presidency is a very strong platform indeed, and it is a large part of the basis for voters to believe Obama's brand of change will bring the economic renewal voters are seeking.

The Clinton legacy is that he delivered on his "the economy stupid" promise to voters, and left office with a growing economy, increasing employment levels and real wages, and a budget surplus. The contrast between that record and that of the current Administration, coupled with the Republican Party's failure to articulate any alternative prescription for our economic malaise gives Obama credibility on his promise of an economic turnaround. Team Obama has been smart to stay very close to strict adherence to the Clintonomics playbook with modest proposals for middle-class tax cuts, and targeted small programs, amid call for fiscal restraint. His numbers may not add up, and he may not be facing up to the enormous long-term challenges economists predict the next president will face, but on the shoulders of the Clinton legacy, it is a fairly potent something to go up against the next-to-nothing proposals coming from McCain on the number-one issue in 2008.

Third, embrace feminism as one of the indispensable pillars of the Democratic coalition. The real "Big Tent" party stares into the same abyss every cycle as it prepares for its convention struggling to unite the factions that make up the diverse Democratic coalition (labor unions, civil rights groups, environmentalists, etc., etc.). Had Clinton prevailed over Obama, the speakers at the upcoming convention in Denver would have been falling all over themselves to rededicate the party to inclusion, racial and ethnic diversity, and respect for the history of the civil rights struggle that helped build the party. Amid Obama's victory celebration, this upcoming convention will be crying out for a rededication to the party's feminist roots and a repudiation of any perceived repudiation of feminism in the primaries.

If Clinton's success in battling back in the later primaries is to have any lasting meaning, it should be this - the principles of gender equality that underlie the feminism of both mothers and daughters (and fathers and brothers) must be honored. There are a lot of ways to define feminism, but the core issue is respect for women, and the Democratic Party diminishes itself if it does not stand for the principle that sexism, as much as racism and other forms of prejudice are neither politically correct nor acceptable.

The party must stand together against the current cultural backlash against feminism in a way that lays the groundwork for women (and men) to support the next woman who runs for the presidency without continuing fear of ridicule. In victory or defeat, Clinton and her supporters deserve to be heard regarding their views about the sexist climate of this campaign. The sexism that just as much as racism persists in our culture, and consciously or unconsciously in our political campaigns must be "denounced and rejected." The Chinese proverb, "women hold up half the sky" does not even fully describe the Democratic Party where numerically, women account for substantially more than half of the votes we will need to win in November and this core group of Democrats deserves real respect from the Democratic Party and its new presidential nominee.

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