A week or more

August 12, 2003 10:41 p.m.

A week or more back I discussed the similarities and dissimilarities between Clinton-hating and Bush-hating. At the time I said that for political purposes it really doesn’t matter which is or was more justified, rational, or whatever. The issue is the political dynamic each creates.

Let me expand on what I mean by that.

Many people wrote in to say that Clinton-hating ended up not profiting the Republican party very much.

That judgment is profoundly mistaken. The vitriolic, organized and often orchestrated opposition to Bill Clinton ended up helping Republicans a great deal. But it’s critical to understand just how it did.

Let’s go back five years to the late summer of 1998. Bill Clinton hadn’t been impeached or acquitted. The various videotaped testimonies had yet to be taken. But, for those with eyes to see, it was already pretty clear how the thing was going to play out. Congressional Republicans were going to pull the country through a protracted impeachment crisis that a clear majority of the public opposed, even though it was pretty clear they weren’t going to be able to drive him from office. A few months later that reality was driven home by the party’s surprisingly disappointing showing in the off-year elections. Yet the whole carnival proceeded anyway.

The Republican party was consumed by its animosity toward the president. Partly this was genuine grass-roots antipathy by Republican partisans. But that generalized rage was pulled together, organized and focused by bullying party moderates with the threat of retribution by an aggrieved base.

However you slice it the Beltway Republican party had grievously and dangerously alienated itself from public opinion on numerous fronts. Clinton-hating was a big loser with a decisive majority of the electorate — at least sixty percent. Yet it still played a key role in the 2000 election.

The key was George W. Bush.

In his person, Bush seemed to Republican partisans to be the antithesis of Clinton. He also consistently tapped at the anti-Clinton keywords like honor, and respect for the office and so forth. At the same time, Bush didn’t come from Washington (or didn’t appear to). And thus he could portray himself as unconnected with the partisan frenzy of the late 1990s. When he talked about ‘changing the tone’ in Washington he wasn’t running against Clinton or Gore. He was running against congressional Republicans in an appeal aimed at swing voters.

What the Bush candidacy provided for the GOP was a candidate who could pocket the 30% to 35% of the electorate animated by anti-Clinton rage, gain from all their energy, and yet also present himself to the political middle and independents as unconnected with the anti-Clinton craziness they found repellent in the congressional GOP. He let the party have its cake and eat it too.

I think the Democrats face a similar dynamic in 2004.

People often talk about the electorate as having a right and a left and a ‘middle’. But that’s not the best way to understand it. It’s really sliced in half in two different ways.

There’s the familiar left and right division — roughly even if you mean Dems versus Republicans. And then there’s the politicized (or partisanized) versus the non-politicized. The politicized group is bigger than the non-politicized part of the electorate. But not by that much. Three to two is probably a reasonable measure.

In many ways the partisans on the left and right have more in common than either do with the non-politicized group, though there are a host of very well-paid pollsters in DC working on teasing out all the nitty-gritty of it.

The key for Democrats is that they very much need a candidate who will harness the intense opposition among Democratic partisans to the direction the president is taking the country without being too tightly connected to or identified with that passion. If they don’t find one, I think they’ll end up having a very mobilized constituency that falls short of securing a majority.

This doesn’t mean the candidate has to have watered down policies or be more ‘centrist’ in policy terms. It also does not and should not mean that he or she doesn’t draw clear distinctions with administration policy. (The self-identified centrist leaders who are publicly scornful of the energized anti-Bush Democratic electorate are foolish and shortsighted. And there’s more than a few people in the orbit of the standard centrist groups that know that and are trying to rectify the mistake.) What it means is that Democrats need a candidate who can appeal to those two very different slices of the electorate.

I’m not prejudging who that candidate is. I’m just saying that Democrats who are seriously interested in having a new president in eighteen months need to choose a candidate with that double-division of the electorate in mind.

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