Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Democrats, New and Old

To build on my last post, one way of thinking about the dynamics of this race is as a contest between new and old Democrats.

In 1992, Bill Clinton campaigned as a New Democrat. That Democrats, and political liberalism, had been hammered in three consecutive elections meant that the way was paved for a New Democrat to come calling and in whom even traditional Democratic voters might be willing to support if doing so would improve the party's electability.

In 2008, Obama is, obstensibly, the new Democrat and Hillary Clinton is the old Democrat. The question is, are Democratic voters ready to turn to a new brand? Have the developments of the last 8 years, or 16 years, created in the minds of most Democrats the need for another New Democrat? It certainly seemed as if many Democrats were in 2003 as Howard Dean made his mark at the California state Democratic conference when he famously asked where the Democratic Party had been when Bush was launching his unilateral invasion of Iraq (What I wanna know is...), chastizing the party's bipartisan acquiescence to Bush and ruling Republicanism.

By primary season of 2004, however, most Democrats had retreated to one of that year's old Democrats, John Kerry.

Now, four years removed from that episode, but with the country still mired in Iraq, what is the mood of Democratic voters?

These first two contests have put off an answer to that question as high numbers of Independents have voted in Iowa and NH. Upcoming contests will undoubtedly shed more light on this topic and the direction of the Party as presumably the influence of Independents in future contests dwindles as the number of closed primary states increase.

The paradox is, though, that while Obama is the New Democrat in the race, he isn't campaigning as an outsider, really. The language of bipartisanship, post-partisanship and unity he's invoked may be New Democrat but it is pretty much right up insider politics' alley. It is the pillar opposite of Howard Dean's 2003-2004 New Democrat campaign.

Conversely, Hillary--like Edwards--is campaigning as a more partisan alternative, New Democrat, at least as it was in the mold of Howard Dean. So, while Hillary is undoubtedly the most insider of Old Democrats, and has kowtowed to much of Bush's agenda, particularly the war and foreign policy, her campaign is largely usurping what a New Democrat would be expected to bring to this year's campaign.

Some of this strange turn-about is no doubt due to the Democrats having won control of Congress in 2006. This has served to disipate to some degree the Democratic anger that drove Howard Dean's campaign. That the "surge" in Iraq has served to alleviate some of the violence associated with our continued occupation of that country, and thus diverted media attention to the personalities and horse race aspect of the campaign, has also strengthened the cross-cutting New/Old Democrat juxtapositioning going on.

One implication of this is something I don't think has generated any consideration so far and that is that despite whatever affinity there might be between John Edwards and Obama, it seems to me that John Edwards' partisanly populist campaign probably has more connection with those inclined to support Hillary, who is dismissive of Obama's hope and optimism, warning that the only type of politics possible is that of partisan combat.

So, as the campaign moves on, it wouldn't surprise me that if this is a rough approximation of the mood of Democratic voters (and not of Independents) that a large portion of Democrats supporting Edwards could very well end up in the Hillary camp.

I think the challenge for Obama (much like the challenge that faced McCain in 2000) is to continue to win his party's primaries and his party's voters in those primaries. Despite McCain's 2000 uprising, he was unable to pull it off. It seems to me that as an opponent of the congressional Democratic approach the past eight years at least on the war, Obama is in a good position to make this outsider, New Democratic appeal. However, the irony is that the existing, old Democratic establishment has largely legislated in the very bipartisan manner that Obama has said he is seeking. So, continued bipartisan appeals during this partisan primary season may not work as well to his benefit. And would result, weirdly, in one our most bipartisan Democrats, Hillary, being rewarded for taking a more partisan approach during the campaign.

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