Arguing themselves to death

Posted: Monday, January 28, 2008

Democrats are so well positioned to take the White House and even win additional seats in Congress this year that it raises an intriguing question: How will they manage to blow it this time?

"My hopes are high," as one Democratic friend put it, "but this wouldn't be the first time that we have managed to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory." Not even.

If a feared Democratic Party crack-up were to happen, my guess is that it would come in the same way that deep divisions have splintered Republicans: They will argue themselves to death.

Republicans have been squabbling among themselves over ideological purity. Purist conservative pundits and other talking heads argue that, one way or another, the frontrunners Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York City fall short of true conservatism.

And Rep. Ron Paul of Texas? He appears to be well positioned to start his own party.

As a result, no clear frontrunner has emerged after the early primaries. Nor is there any standard bearer in the bunch who stands ready to pick up the banner of the conservative movement in the way that Ronald Reagan did. Yet it is a tribute to the power of Reagan's memory that he seems to have risen from the grave to splinter Democrats -- over a tribute to Reagan.

One of the most memorable of disputes in last week's Democratic debate in South Carolina came when Sen. Hillary Clinton accused Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois of committing a liberal sin: He allegedly talked about "admiring Ronald Reagan."

Further, she said, Obama "said in the last week that he really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last 10 to 15 years, and we can give you the exact quote."

Well, not quite, as Obama was quick to point out. Obama made the remarks in question during a meeting at the Reno Gazette-Journal. He was seeking their editorial endorsement, which he later received. He did speak positively of Reagan and called the Republicans as "the party of ideas," but he did not say that he admired Reagan or Reagan's ideas.

At the debate, Obama also noted that the former first lady had "provided much more fulsome praise" of Reagan in Tom Brokaw's new book, "Boom!" Indeed, she is quoted in the book as saying Reagan "played the balance and the music beautifully" as he raised taxes after lowering them and negotiated arms control with the Soviets after calling them an "evil empire."

Both the Clinton and Obama views should sound sensible enough in the real world. Even if you found plenty about Reagan to criticize, as I did, you could respect his skills at building winning coalitions of voters.

But, in the world of political ideologues, it is not enough to be factually correct. You also must be politically correct. As a result, the liberal blogs and punditocracy are all abuzz with critiques of Obama's Reagan remarks, ranging from "ill advised" to "stuck on stupid."

Clinton apparently saw her opportunity to retaliate for the trashing she took after her recent remarks that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "dream" was not realized until President Lyndon B. Johnson turned it into legislation and shepherded it through Congress. Although she was historically and legislatively correct, a number of black Democrats sensed an effort to devalue King's heroic efforts. Election year politics sometimes rub sensitivities raw.

The irony here is that Obama and Clinton both obviously learned a lot from Reagan and King in terms of tactics and pragmatism. It is one thing to have great ideas, but if you can't turn those ideas into actual elective office and legislation, you run the risk of yielding power to your ideological adversaries.

Instead, you should try to build winning majorities with middle-of-the-road swing voters who are not so committed to one extreme or the other ideologically. They just want to see some of the positive "change" that has become this year's political mantra. It sure beats arguing.

• Clarence Page is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.



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