Can Democrats avoid arguing their way to defeat?

January 25, 2008|By CLARENCE PAGE

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," 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."

If a feared Democratic Party crackup 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. One way or another, purist conservative pundits and other talking heads point out that Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York City fall short of true conservatism.

As a result, no clear front-runner has emerged after the early primaries. Nor is there anyone 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 Mr. Reagan's memory that he seems to have risen from the grave to splinter Democrats - over a tribute to Mr. Reagan.

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

Well, not quite, as Mr. Obama was quick to point out. He did speak positively of Mr. Reagan and called the Republicans "the party of ideas," but he did not say that he admired Mr. Reagan or his ideas.

At the debate, Mr. Obama also noted that the former first lady had "provided much more fulsome praise" of Mr. Reagan in Tom Brokaw's new book, where she is quoted as saying Mr. 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 Mr. 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 is all abuzz with critiques of Mr. Obama's Reagan remarks.

Mrs. Clinton apparently saw her opportunity to retaliate for the trashing she took after her recent remarks that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "dream" was not realized until President Lyndon B. Johnson turned it into legislation and shepherded it through Congress.

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

Instead, you should try to build winning majorities with voters who are not so committed ideologically but just want to see some change. It beats arguing.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears weekly in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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