The US Democrats' opportunity: can they take it?

About the author
Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. Among his books are A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007) and The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009)

Less than five months from the mid-term elections in the Senate and House of Representatives, and less than two-and-a-half years from the next presidential elections, two paradoxes dominate the strategic political scene in the United States.

The first is that while President Bush's popularity has plunged to some of the lowest levels scraped by any of his predecessors, while the Republican party is split on many issues and deeply discredited by one scandal after another, the Democrats have little idea about how they can capitalise on what ought to be the opportunity of their lifetimes for a resounding double victory in 2006 and 2008.

The second, at once the demonstration of that first fact and at least in part its cause, is the Hillary Clinton problem. Senator Clinton is by far the favourite for the Democratic nomination in 2008. She has cleverly staked out a moderate position designed to appeal to some at least of those who in recent years have voted Republican, though this is most unlikely to work. She has gathered an impressive war-chest of over $20 million, with every prospect that she can raise as much as she needs (and let no one underestimate the part played by money in buying success in presidential campaigns). She can easily recruit a formidable team of advisers and operatives, not to mention the formidable talents of her husband as sagacious adviser and inspirational campaigner.

Also by Godfrey Hodgson in openDemocracy on American politics:

"Can America go modest?"
(October 2001)

"The Senate’s filibuster deal: only a truce in the culture wars"
(May 2005)

"American media in the firing-line" (June 2005)

"Gimme five! US Republicans’ amoral minority" (June 2005)

"After Katrina, a government adrift" (September 2005)

"Oil and American politics" (October 2005)

"The death of American politics" (October 2005)

"The Democrats’ dilemma"
(November 2005)

"The mandate of heaven and the tipping-point" (December 2005)

Yet the Democrats' predicament lies in the widespread assumption that if Hillary Clinton has by far the best chance of being nominated, she has virtually no chance of being elected. One veteran observer of the political game put it in a nutshell to me: nobody supposes that she has any chance of carrying a single "red state", that is any of the states that, in the polarised state of American politics in 2000 and 2004, delivered solid majorities to George W Bush.

The paradoxical situation of Senator Clinton is not essentially a function of her personality or even of the political positions she has taken, though it is true that for many Americans west of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon line she embodies everything widely associated with the eastern "elitism" they abhor. Although she has attached a ball-and-chain to her ankles by supporting the Iraq war, she is still generally regarded as the very epitome of an eastern liberal.

She is the demonstration of the Democratic dilemma, because no amount of "triangulation" – the strategy pioneered by her husband's adviser Dick Morris to defuse dangerous opposition arguments while minimising damaging internal ones – has done her any good. And she is at least in part the trigger of her party's difficulties, because so long as she is so far ahead in polls and plausibility within her party, she adds to the obstacles facing any other candidate who might have a chance of winning the general election.

The Democratic beauty contest

The troubles of the Republican party and the near-disintegration of the Republican president have naturally quickened interest in both the 2006 mid-term elections and the 2008 presidential election. The conventional wisdom is that the Democrats have a decent chance of regaining control of the House of Representative and an outside chance of winning control of the Senate this November.

So plain is the Republican decline that under the shadow of Senator Clinton, so to speak, a number of Democratic candidates are beginning to either announce or broadly hint at their availability. What the New York Times columnist Russell Baker used to call the "great mentioners" are at work.

The point is made that, even more than usual, senators are handicapped and governors advantaged for 2008, if only because most potential senator candidates, like Senator Clinton, but also like Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, voted for the Iraq war. It is increasingly clear that by the time of the presidential election, the war will be deeply unpopular. To have voted for it will deprive a Democratic candidate from the Senate of one of the strongest, perhaps the essential argument for throwing the Republicans out.

As a consequence, one Democratic senator who might once have been thought too far from the political centre, Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, has acquired some plausibility. He was the only senator to vote against the so-called Patriot Act in late 2001. Now that forty Democrats and four Republicans in the Senate share his position, he may come to seem a plausible candidate – at least in the primary stage of the electoral process, the equivalent of Howard Dean in the 2004 race.

The mentioners also find time for Mark Warner, the former governor of Virginia, and Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa. The punditocracy has even begun to clear its collective throat and acknowledge the impressive talents of the young and very able African-American senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.

The news that Obama had hired a couple of consultants was enough to have the Washington Post's handicapper, Chris Cillizza, to speculate that Obama was getting to run in 2008. In his Time column, Joe Klein shares the same suspicion (see "Barack Obama Isn't Not Running for President", 28 May 2006). Obama is in fact most unlikely to run after a single term in the Senate, though he is obviously a strong prospect for the longer term.

The Republican inheritance

More interesting than the handicapping of possible candidates to beat Hillary Clinton in 2008 is the question of how — that is to say, on what arguments — any Democrat can win against any Republican. The truth is that no one has any idea at this stage who the Republican candidate will be. Three of the most frequently mentioned names seem to me highly unlikely to win the nomination:

  • Condoleezza Rice has been as much of a success as secretary of state as anyone could be, given the profound errors of the president's foreign policy and his reliance on vice-president Dick Cheney and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom disagree with everything she has said and done
  • Senator John McCain has the qualities to be a great conservative Republican president, but conservative Republicans will never choose him, if only because of the abrasive campaign he ran against George W Bush in 2000. He is even more likely to be a successful third party candidate, if he were not so loyal a Republican
  • Governor John Ellis "Jeb" Bush of Florida, the president's younger brother, is a Bush too far in a country that is in denial about its willingness to tolerate a degree of dynastic preference. If two George Bushes had been more successful, a dynastic transfer might have been conceivable. As it is, no shrewd Republican manager is going to take over the mortgage of one Bush's economic mismanagement and the other's on the ill-conceived, ill-justified and ill-managed "war on terror".

Whoever wins the Republican nomination, the Democrats need to think long and hard about how they can beat him (and it is most unlikely to be a her).

For a generation and more, Republicans have done well by caricaturing Democrats as decadent, elitist, unpatriotic hedonists. Men like George McGovern and John Kerry with impressive war records were portrayed by their opponents as weaklings, if not cowards. Democratic candidates, faced with the sheer ruthlessness of Republican campaign managers like Lee Atwater or Karl Rove, bought into the idea that their own best instincts were anathema to the American "mainstream".

There was, to be sure, not a little truth to the charge of elitism at least. Democrats who, at least after their military service, had stayed close to the most privileged and sheltered areas of national life (Al Gore and John Kerry spring to mind) were quick to assume that their fellow-Democrats "out there" were unreconstructed "bubbas": ignorant, prejudiced and impenetrable to rational political argument.

To carry one or both houses of Congress this autumn, and to win back the White House in 2008, it seems obvious that Democrats need to stop moving towards the centre out of a more or less unacknowledged sense that their opponents understand the public mind better than they do. They need to escape from what Colin Greer calls the "politics of calm" and proclaim their own beliefs. To be able to do that, of course, they need to conduct a candid debate about what those beliefs are. But American voters are not fools. If there is one thing they can recognise, it is insincerity.

The Democrats need to articulate some core beliefs. These include:

  • expressing the view that foreign policy is not best conducted by repeating like a mantra that the United States is "the lone superpower"
  • acknowledging that government has a legitimate role in society
  • embracing and defending their own great achievements under the administrations of Franklin D Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson (yes, and Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton as well)
  • offering policies – on health care, corporate governance and taxation – that can appeal to the broad majority, and not just to what has now become a minority of the political elite.

American politics will remain in flux as long as the two dominating political paradoxes await resolution. Time is shorter than many of the protagonists think.