Road Map to Defeat

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The New York Times

Road Map to Defeat

Bob Herbert

The Democrats are doing everything they can to blow this presidential election. This is a skill that comes naturally to the party. There is no such thing as a can't-miss year for the Democrats. They are truly gifted at finding ways to lose.

Jimmy Carter managed to win the White House in 1976 by looking pious and riding a wave of anti-Watergate revulsion. After four hapless years, he dutifully handed the keys back to the G.O.P.

Bill Clinton tried hard to lose, with sex scandals and whatnot, during the 1992 campaign. But Ross Perot wouldn't let him. Mr. Clinton won with a piddling 43 percent of the vote. For eight years, Mr. Clinton tried to throw the presidency away (with sex scandals and whatnot), but he was never able to succeed.

That's been it for the party for the past 40 years. The Democrats have become so psychologically battered by these many decades in the leadership wilderness that they consider the Clinton years, during which the president was impeached and they lost control of both houses of Congress, to have been a period of triumph.

Now comes 2008, a can't-lose year if there ever was one. A united Democratic Party should be able to win this election in a walk. The economy is terrible and getting worse. The Republicans are demoralized. John McCain is no J.F.K. And the country wants to elect a Democrat.

So what are the Democrats doing? The Clintons are running around with flamethrowers, gleefully trying to incinerate the prospects of the party's leading candidate, Barack Obama. As Bill Clinton put it last month: "If a politician doesn't want to get beat up, he shouldn't run for office."

Senator Obama, for his part, seems to have lost sight of the unifying message that proved so compelling early in his campaign and has stumbled into weird cultural predicaments that have caused some people to rethink his candidacy.

While some of those predicaments raise legitimate concerns (his former pastor, his comments in San Francisco) and some do not (stupid questions about wearing a flag pin), he has allowed them to fester unnecessarily. The way for a candidate to eventually change the subject is to offer policy prescriptions so creative and compelling that they generate excitement among the electorate and can't be ignored by the press.

Voters want more from Senator Obama. He's given a series of wonderful speeches, but he has to add more meat to those rhetorical bones. He needs to be clear about where he wants to lead this country and how he plans to do it. That's how a candidate defines himself or herself.

Instead, Mr. Obama is allowing the Clintons and the news media to craft a damaging persona of him as some kind of weak-kneed brother from another planet, out of touch with mainstream America, and perhaps a loser.

Wednesday night's debate in Philadelphia may have been a sorry exercise in journalism, but even many of Senator Obama's own supporters were disappointed with his lackluster performance.

The big issues of our time are being left behind as pettiness and mean-spirited partisanship carry the day.

Voters across the country seem disgusted with this state of affairs. George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson of ABC News are being pilloried for the way they conducted Wednesday's debate. Hillary Clinton's disapproval ratings have climbed into a zone that makes it legitimate to wonder whether she could defeat Senator McCain. And much of the excitement and enthusiasm surrounding Mr. Obama's candidacy has cooled.

That raucous laughter you hear in the background is coming from the likes of Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, President Bush and Senator McCain. They can't believe their good fortune.

The issues still favor the Democrats. More and more Americans are losing their jobs, and many of those still employed are working fewer hours and cashing smaller paychecks. Vacation plans are being curtailed because of declining family income and sky-high gasoline prices. The value of the family home is eroding.

Instead of capitalizing on the political advantages presented by these issues, the Democrats, with their increasingly small-minded approach to this election, are squandering them.

There was always going to be resistance in the U.S. to putting a black person or a woman of any color in the White House. To overcome that built-in resistance, three things are crucially important: new voters have to be brought into the process; the nominee must have an exciting and compelling message; and the party has to be extraordinarily unified behind its standard-bearer.

It's not too late for the Democrats to pull this off. But there's already blood on the floor from the nomination fight, and the fight ain't over. The G.O.P.'s fondest wish is that the Democrats keep doing what they're doing.

Bob Herbert writes for The New York Times.

© 2008 The New York Times

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