Politics & Policy

Taking Issue With the Democratic Race

An empty primary.

One thing we’re learning from this election: These really are different parties.

First, look at the Democrats. Listen to the discussion about their strategies. Hillary needs to win more blacks and men. Obama must capture more Hispanics and peel away more white women. Both need to fight for “the youth.”

Now look at the Republicans and how we talk about them. Can McCain win over conservatives? Should he apologize for his support of amnesty or his opposition to tax cuts? Can Romney convince pro-lifers? Will Huckabee ever make inroads with economic conservatives? Were Rudy’s positions on gays, guns, and abortion too liberal?

See what I’m getting at? If substance were water, the Democratic campaign would be a desert. Oh, I know, Hillary’s a wonk, and Obama’s got enough policy papers to fill the library at Alexandria. So what? Both Obama and Hillary insist there are no major policy differences between them, except for the war and health care.

Their disagreements on these two issues actually demonstrate how little separates them. On Iraq, Obama insists that he was right first. But both of them promise to pull troops out as fast as possible. The only argument between them is how fast that might be. It’s hardly a Churchillian conversation.

As for health care, their disagreements are interesting to a few health-care wonks and activists — she wants to mandate universal coverage, he doesn’t — but it’s all absurdly academic. Anybody who knows anything about how Washington works understands that presidential campaign proposals are, at best, mere discussion documents when it comes time to craft actual legislation. Just as no plan long survives actual combat, no campaign baloney survives the congressional meat grinder unscathed.

But that’s it. The rest of their disagreement boils down to who is a more authentic agent of “change.” In fairness, there’s an interesting debate to be had on that score, as Obama and Hillary’s philosophies of government differ dramatically. Obama believes in a transformative politics where lofty — often gassy — rhetoric is not merely a substitute for action, but actually preferable to the nitty-gritty detail work Hillary prefers.

But that debate is almost entirely theoretical, drowned out by the mad scramble to assemble an identity-politics coalition of generic “Hispanics,” “blacks,” “white women,” etc. It’s amazing how complacent the media is in carrying on with this kind of nakedly reductionist analysis. The notion that Hispanics may be voting one way or another for reasons other than their ethnicity seems never to come up.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, women, blacks and Hispanics vote too, but that’s not how the demographics and coalitions of the right work. GOP candidates actually have to win over people who believe things. (After all, the famed, and tragically frayed, “Reagan coalition” was about different groups of principled people, not a mere hodgepodge of ethnicities and genders.) Exit pollsters ask GOP voters whether they’re committed pro-lifers, whether they think the economy is the most important issue, etc. I’m sure they ask Democratic voters similar questions, but it’s telling how little we hear about that. What Democratic voters actually believe doesn’t seem to be that relevant, in large part because Democrats aren’t voting their beliefs, they’re voting affections.

Obama is “the one” — in Oprah’s words — not because of his policies but because his is a transcendent, unifying, super-nifty-cool personality. Hillary, meanwhile, is staying aloft largely through her ability to guilt-trip female liberals into sticking with her. Her cultivated weepiness and dour lamentations about how she’s been so picked on sometimes make it seem like she’s setting up a political version of one of those “how-does-a-Jewish-mother-change-a-lightbulb?” jokes. Answer: “It’s all right; I’ll just sit in the dark.”

Recall how her crying jag in New Hampshire, which apparently turned things around for her, was all about how important it is to her to be president. Message: Go ahead and vote for Obama; I’ll just sit here in the dark. Indeed, I’ve lost count of how many stories I’ve heard on public radio about Democratic women deciding to vote for Hillary out of guilt.

The Republican party is a mess, absolutely. Conservatives are sorting out what they believe, what heresies they can tolerate and on which principles they will not bend. At times this argument is loud, ugly and unfortunate. But you know what? At least it’s an argument about something. On the Democratic side, if you strip away the crass appeals to identity politics, the emotional pandering and the helium-infused rhetoric, you’re pretty much left with a campaign about nothing.

Jonah Goldberg is the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.

(C) 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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