There are moments when you see a slow-motion disaster unfolding before you, and you can only yell out and hope those around you notice in time. Now is such a moment for Democrats, and "in time" means before the Super Duper primaries this Tuesday in Minnesota and across the nation.
Hillary Clinton is a fine U.S. senator and has deep symbolic importance as our first viable female presidential candidate, but three factors represent crippling structural flaws for the Democratic ticket this November if she becomes our candidate.
First is the nightmare we saw once before. Ralph Nader has just declared his decision to form an exploratory committee for 2008 and will certainly wage another presidential campaign hammering the Democrats. Under ordinary circumstances, Nader's inevitable next candidacy would be unimportant, given his meteoric fall from electoral relevance. Thanks to voter resentment over his impact in 2000, and to efforts including our "Ralph Don't Run" campaign opposing Nader's candidacy, his vote total fell from an election-tilting 3 percent in 2000 to 0.38 percent in 2004. As we wrote on this page in 2004, Nader's votes always come at the expense of the Democratic candidate. While Nader was not a factor in 2004, Hillary's weakness among progressives -- millions will never forgive her vote authorizing the Iraq war -- means that he will crawl back up into the low single digits. We saw in 2000 the carnage low single digits can cause.
Second, after his victory in Florida and endorsement by Rudy Giuliani, John McCain is the presumptive GOP nominee. McCain's greatest appeal will be to independent voters, a large vital block of the electorate that is Clinton's great weakness. Clinton is a highly polarizing candidate, which damages her among independents. As Time magazine's most recent polling indicates, she has the deadly combination of very high negatives (41 percent unfavorable) plus a deeply fixed voter impression (91 percent say they know enough about her to form an opinion). The latter figure means those numbers are not going to change substantially, and McCain will almost surely win independents. This should be a deafening alarm bell for Democrats.
Finally, Hillary has an ironic power shared by no other candidate: From the wreckage of a broken, dysfunctional Republican Party with deep rifts among its factions, she would create sudden GOP unity. If Clinton is the Democratic candidate, the Republican base will come out in numbers that have nothing to do with John McCain and everything to do with Hillary and Bill Clinton. As GOP pundits are now openly admitting, they want Clinton this November. They fear Barack Obama.
Even in a year when Democrats are in great position to win in November, if Clinton unifies the Republicans, loses independents and loses the progressive left, her chances of winning the general election are slim indeed.
Let's look at the alternative. Obama inspires Americans across the political spectrum, with his greatest strengths supplanting Hillary's greatest weaknesses. He unites independents, the young, minorities and progressives alike. He will not unify the GOP, and indeed will take Republican votes. That same Time magazine poll shows that among those who have an opinion, he has astounding 70 percent positives. Yet 51 percent of voters don't yet know him enough to even have formed an opinion. With his power of ideas and remarkable personal charisma yet to be fully seen, his upside is enormous.
In 2004, we had our regrets about having to fight the often-admirable Ralph Nader to oppose the reelection of George W. Bush. We beseech Democratic voters this Tuesday to make such an effort unnecessary in 2008. Obama can unite progressives, independents and Democrats, and discourage rather than unify Republicans.
John Pearce and Kathy Cramer were founders and directors of Ralph Don't Run, a progressive citizens' campaign opposed to Ralph Nader's candidacy in 2004.
© 2008 Star Tribune