Pennsylvania's televised debate between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could be the most important in the Democratic presidential nominating contest.
Finally, next Tuesday (April 22), the Pennsylvania presidential primary will be held after a several-week interval during which the two campaigns and the media have had little to chew on but glitches, charges and counter-charges involving Clinton and Obama. The candidates themselves have gotten testy and downright hostile toward the other over the past week. Meaningful percentages of each candidate's supporters now say they could not support the other candidate in a general election.
Pessimists among Democrats already are concluding that the two have done terminal damage to each other and that Sen. John McCain — currently running even with Clinton and Obama in national preference polls — almost surely will emerge a November winner.
Time to return to the fundamentals:
- Dissatisfaction with the Bush administration, the war in Iraq, and a shaky economy all are factors favoring Democratic presidential and congressional candidates this fall.
- It is quite true that a presidential vote is different from other votes. Voters will want confidence that the next president, regardless of party, could manage an international or domestic economic crisis.
- McCain is a septuagenarian and former career military officer who can claim maturity and experience. But his age and background will not necessarily translate into votes. He has taken a huge risk, over the past year, by hitching his candidacy to the success of a surge strategy in Iraq. If, this fall, things seem shaky in Iraq, he will be hurt. His recent public statements on economic and financial policy have only underscored the fact, as he conceded earlier, that he knows almost nothing about either subject.
- Preparing for fall televised debates against McCain, either Obama or Clinton will be sure to bear down on those policy areas where McCain appears ignorant or uninformed. Beyond that, national media have not yet focused on McCain's public and personal backgrounds as they have focused on Obama's and Clinton's. There are many vulnerabilities there.
Now, the Democratic contest and tomorrow night's debate.
As the Democratic nominating campaigns have proceeded, Democrats' longstanding internal problems have been exposed. Mainly they are problems which have existed and not been resolved over the past 40 years.
Post-election surveys in 1968 found huge numbers of former Democratic voters — especially blue-collar, middle-income, non-minority voters in northern and Midwestern industrial states — had defected either to Richard Nixon or third-party candidate George Wallace. These voters, surveys found, felt alienated from a party and candidates they increasingly identified with welfare state, minority-favoring policies. The defections increased in 1972 as Sen. George McGovern's campaign became identified with the "acid, amnesty and abortion" counter-culture which these same voters rejected.
They voted in huge numbers for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and, thereafter, have been referred to as "Reagan Democrats," leaning Democratic by class and economic interest but rejecting what they perceive as their party's posture on such issues as abortion, gun control, gay marriage, immigration, and safeguards against domestic terrorism.
Technological change and globalization have over these years changed the nature of the American economy. Globalization, and liberalization of finance and trade, have overall benefited the United States as the world's strongest economy. But sectors and industries in transition — steel, autos and textiles, for example — have paid a price. Thus the same payroll-dependent, so-called Reagan Democrats have been drawn to protectionist calls from labor unions and half-baked commentators such as CNN's Lou Dobbs.
This bring us to Pennsylvania, an old-economy, old-politics state filled with Reagan Democrats and with voters who pay more attention to such factors as race, ethnicity, religion, and social class than those on the West Coast, for instance.
Both Obama and Clinton, in Pennsylvania as in other industrial states, have pandered shamelessly to protectionist sentiment and, thus, moved the Democratic Party — in President Kennedy's time the bastion of free trade policies — even further toward the reactionary, nativist path it has taken in recent years.
Clinton has jumped on Obama's ill-chosen words (uttered in Marin County, California) regarding the values of such Reagan Democratic voters and tried to use them as proof that he is a limousine-liberal elitist far removed from ordinary people. Clinton, herself an archetypal proponent of political correctitude, has attempted to paint herself by contrast as a regular guy in touch with Bud and Philly cheesesteaks. Obama's Chicago pastor keeps bobbing up in public to remind voters of his inflammatory rhetoric. Bill Clinton keeps complicating Hillary's campaign with misrepresentations and over-statements which have contributed to overall voter Clinton Fatigue.
All of this would be comical if it were not dead serious.
How hard will Obama and Clinton go after each other in the Pennsylvania debate? Will either go beyond a point-of-no-return in making accusations about the other? A misstatement or extreme statement by either could, indeed, damage Democrats' chances in the fall.
At debate's end, will Reagan Democrats have reason to feel reconnected to their party or more likely to defect again this fall to a John McCain with whom they feel personally more comfortable?
After Pennsylvania, the campaign season will wind on through the end of primaries and caucuses in early June and, then, into a battle for so-called "super delegates" still technically uncommitted to either candidate. Some Democratic leaders have called for the "trailing candidate" in June, most likely Clinton, to drop out at that point. But the odds are against that happening — unless Obama wins all the remaining contests until then one-sidedly.
Short term, I expect both candidates to step back from the brink in the debate and for Clinton to win Pennsylvania next Tuesday by something between 5-10 percentage points.
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