Obama vs. Clinton and the Primary System

I’ve been resistant to delving into political topics on this blog, mostly out of fear that I might expose too much about my own ignorance. :)  I do tend to follow political debate (particularly at the national level) quite a bit, though.  As a registered Democrat that will almost certainly end up supporting and voting for whichever candidate becomes that party’s nominee, I have certainly been taking a lot of interest in the 2008 primary season.

I disagree with the increasingly widespread commentary accusing the Democratic Party of self-destructing simply because both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are still active candidates with more than 3 months remaining before the party convention and with several states still having yet to have their primaries.  As I see it, the Democrats are prompting a fair amount of criticism and doomsday predictions simply because the candidate selection process is working essentially as designed.  This primary instead seems to be illustrating how the basic method being used to select candidates usually doesn’t work very well and has largely become an outdated relic of a very different time.

I think that the result of the Republican nomination is much more troublesome, although very typical of the process for both parties during the typical modern election, including all the ones since I’ve been eligible to vote.  John McCain was widely accepted to have clinched his party’s nomination after the March 4th round of primaries, even though the primary season still had several months to go.  Much has been made about the voters of Florida and Michigan being disenfranchised in the selection of the Democratic candidate due to those states violating party rules regarding scheduling, but it is that really worse than the fact that the Republican primaries in 10 states have ended up being basically irrelevant?

The extended, highly staggered primary process made quite a bit of sense in a time when traveling from state to state could take days or weeks and when 24-hour news networks and the Internet weren’t available as a means for the candidates and parties to get their views, positions, and even personalities quickly and widely disseminated to every part of the country.  In today’s era of air travel and mass communications, though, campaigning for a simultaneous, nationwide primary would certainly be feasible and would avoid large portions of the population from being essentially disenfranchised from the selection of the candidates.  There might be a grain of truth in the concern that such a system could pretty sharply reduce the importance and influence of smaller states and rural communities, but the current system usually seems to have largely the opposite effect, which really seems to make even less sense.  I really hope that this year’s primary will prompt some serious discussion of this long overdue change.

Back to Obama and Clinton, I understand the line of thinking that the increasingly heated primary campaign could end up causing a fair amount of damage to the ultimate nominee.  While I expect that most of the recently debated weaknesses and liabilities of both Democratic candidates would have come out in the general election even if one had been chosen as the nominee earlier, this primary is certainly calling attention to them early on.  I also think it is a valid argument that a fair number of prominent Democrats (including both candidates) have thrown around enough criticism at one candidate that it could come  back to haunt them in the general election.  Finally, it is hard to argue with the idea that McCain is getting a bit of a free ride right now with the press so focused on the two Democratic candidates.

By November, I have serious doubts that much of this will really matter much.  After the conventions are over, there will be a sharp focus on the positions and contrasts between the ultimate nominee and McCain and the primary is going to really feel like old news.  In fact, as Obama has recently moved towards what appears to be an insurmountable lead, that shift already seems to be taking place.  The very concentrated focus on the last few months of the election are pretty certain to largely eclipse the primary as a news story as we approach next November.

I also don’t put too much stock in the recent polls that suggest a fairly high number of Clinton supporters could switch to McCain or just choose not to vote.  That strikes me as the type of thing that a strong supporter of a candidate would say to help bolster his/her preference during an active campaign, but I think it is a rather safe bet that most will still end up voting for the final candidate that is the closest ideological match.  Obama and Clinton really aren’t too far apart on most issues while McCain’s views differ much more dramatically.

One exception to the above that is hard to ignore is the fact that either of the remaining Democratic nominees will make history as either the first African American or the first woman to become a major party nominee.  I think it would be naive to pretend that there aren’t a certain percentage of supporters for either candidate that are heavily motivated by that.  I think it is a legitimate concern that someone who was holding out hopes that a long-underrepresented group might break through could end up frustrated to the point of withdrawing from the system. In order to alleviate this, I really do think that Obama needs to very seriously consider putting all the contentious competition of the election into the past and asking Clinton to be his running mate.  If that isn’t viable, or if she doesn’t want to be Vice President, he certainly should make sure that other strong female candidates for the job are at least given very strong consideration.

Finally, I want to address the claim that I have seen on a number of occasions that this is the Democrats’ election to lose or that the extended primary might be threatening what should have been a sure thing.  I just don’t think that is true at all.  While President Bush’s approval rating is a record low, it seems clear to me that those numbers are a rejection of his leadership and execution of his policies, not of conservative ideology.  Just because someone disapproves of how the Bush administration has turned out, I don’t see that as translating to the embrace of the Democratic platform.  In McCain, the Republicans have wisely chosen a candidate that is very different from President Bush in personality, experience, and executive approach.  He is also unquestionably more moderate and open to compromise on many issues.  While the Democrats will certainly try to do so, I think it will be very hard to make a case that a McCain administration would be the equivalent of a 3rd Bush administration. 

The last several elections have shown this nation to be pretty closely divided ideologically and I pretty strongly believe that this was going to be a very close, hard-fought election even had the Democrats quickly and decisively selected their candidates.  Any belief that this election can be won easily strikes me as a pretty clear path to defeat.

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