A Not-So-Simple Twist of Fate: Could Hillary Bequeath Us Our Long-Awaited Third Party?
Oh boy. Where have I seen this movie before?
I think it was four years, surprisingly enough. Hey, what a coincidence! Wasn't there a presidential election going on back then, too?
Remember how Howard Dean came out of near total obscurity, how he started walloping the presumptive front-runner, John "Fearless" Kerry, by taking bold positions (at least in the context of American politics) against the war, and against George W. Bush? Remember how Kerry changed his tune to ape Dean's message, and how nervous Democratic voters played it safe and came home to the guy with the experience and the name brand? Remember what an outstandingly effective candidate he then turned out to be? Remember the "real deal"? (Oh, and what a deal it was. I think experienced card players refer to that hand as a 'jack-shit straight, seven high', if I'm not mistaken.)
Is this ringing any bells for anyone?
Only Democrats could lose the White House in 2008. It's hard to imagine a more perfect storm favoring their decisive, landslide victory. This should be 1932 redux, and then some. There's a reviled incumbent from the opposite party, already past his expiration date four years ago when he stole a second election. There's a new nominee from that same party joined to him at the hip on the most important issues, and stupid enough to be seen as such publicly. There's the economy heading into a recession after years of lethargy for the middle class. An extremely unpopular war based on lies. A massive national debt. A housing crisis. An environmental crisis. Gas at well over three bucks a gallon. Oil over $100 a barrel. The dollar at record lows and plummeting. Pension stocks falling and cities falling apart - when they're not literally drowning. Scandals everywhere in the Republican Party. Three-fourths of the country believing America to be on the wrong track. And more. Put it all together and it's an amazing scenario! It's like some poli-sci professor somewhere was tinkering around with a real-life statistical model, setting all the variables at max to see how big a blow-out is theoretically possible. "Hey, I wonder what happens if...?"
It's a perfect, perfect storm. And then along came Hillary. Look, I certainly don't object to her running if she wants to. But I do object to how she's running, and I think Democratic voters are as dumb as a bag of hammers sitting out in the rain to pull the handle for her. In this year of the great political tsunami, Republicans have managed to - inadvertently, it would seem - choose their best hope to hold on to the presidency, even if they can't quite stand their own choice. Hillary would be the Democrats' worst hope.
She would go into the general election with all sorts of pre-existing baggage and negatives. She would get smashed to pieces by McCain on the very voter selection criteria she herself has articulated for use against Obama: experience and national security. McCain could virtually take her 3:00 a.m. ad, pull her out and drop himself in, and use it against her. And he will. Her candidacy is already ugly to contemplate, and she hasn't even released her tax filings yet. Aren't Democrats just brilliant? Hey, maybe she can get Kerry to be her running mate! Perhaps Bob Shrum is free these days, and can finally push himself into double digits on his personal best lifetime count of presidential races lost (with zero wins), by managing the campaign.
But it's not just Democrats going with the Clintons that alarms me, it's how they might win it. It is almost a mathematical certainty that neither candidate can win the nomination by means of gathering pledged delegates in the months ahead. Under the proportional allocation system Democratic primaries and caucuses tend to use, a candidate has to do exceedingly well in the popular vote to realize a significant shift in delegates. It would appear that Clinton's got some favorable states ahead, and that Obama has as many or perhaps more, unless momentum has really shifted now, after Tuesday. I tend to doubt that is the case, unless Obama goes all Massachusetts at this point, like Kerry and Dukakis, and stands by helplessly watching the steamroller as it relentlessly approaches. In which case, fine, anyhow - get the clown off the stage, he's not ready for prime-time. As a tired American progressive, worn down by disappointment across more decades of losing politics than I care to count, I can abide many things. But one of them is not another wimpy Democratic presidential nominee who gets out-slugged by the latest Karl Rove and manages yet again to seize defeat from the jaws of victory.
Anyhow, let's say we end the primary season about where we are now, with Obama about 100 delegates up, and having won more votes and more states than Clinton, but with neither candidate over the magic nomination-clinching line. It would be fairly outrageous for the Clintons to seize the brass ring at that point, but they will not care in the slightest what the ramifications of their actions might be for the party or the country. The Clintons will do anything - and I mean anything - to get the presidency. This is a sickness that infects the hearts and minds of some people much more than others. Because of their own needs, most prominently a very deep-seated personal insecurity, they simply need the validation of being president, and they go after it like a heat-seeking missile headed toward a power plant.
You don't want to get in their way, man. Road kill is no mere metaphor when someone's intensely-held life aspiration is on the line and their moral bearings got tossed overboard sometime back in their twenties. You don't get that sense of desperate pathological need from, say, Jimmy Carter or George McGovern, while individuals like George H. W. Bush or Richard Nixon fairly reeked of it. In the case of Bush the Elder, clearly the whole point of being president was to be president. He didn't seem to have any ideas of what to do with the office once he got there. In the case of his son, the whole point was to do it better than Dad, and so he had lots of completely insane ideas of what he wanted to do once he got there, particularly in areas like taxes and Iraq, where Poppy had screwed up on the way to losing a second term (amateur!).
The Clintons are very much cut from the same cloth as Old Man Bush. Actually doing something in office is incidental to the main project, which is the psychological satisfaction (and reassurance) that comes from all the attention, glory and power attached to the White House. Compared to that overwhelming goal, they no more care about national health care than does Sean Hannity. If they can win by going single-payer, so be it. If they could win by war, the death penalty and welfare slashing instead, they would. Indeed, they have. The point is that the Clintons will do anything to secure the presidency, even if that includes wrecking that part of the Democratic Party they didn't already wreck during the 1990s, and/or tossing a few body blows in the direction of American democracy. The definitive model here is the 2000 election, and the campaign I'm referring to wasn't Al Gore's, ladies and gentlemen. More like the other one in that race. Anyone with any doubt about what they're capable of needs to adjust the satellite dish on their igloo, and fast. (If she does leave the race, it's only because she absolutely cannot see any mathematical possibility of winning whatsoever, and she wants to preserve some shred of her reputation because - and only because - she'll be getting ready for 2012. Even if there's Democratic incumbent in the White House. Maybe especially if there is.)
Far more likely is that Clinton remains in the race, keeps it competitive by staying within range delegate-wise, and marches all the way to Denver fighting for the nomination. Then she plays some card, or combination of cards, in order to effectively steal it from Obama, despite his having won more states, more votes and more pledged delegates. Perhaps she does it using superdelegates. Perhaps she manages to get Florida and Michigan counted. Perhaps she sues to invalidate her loss in the Texas caucuses. Perhaps John Edwards (with anywhere from 12 to 61 delegates pledged to him, depending on whose count you believe) wants very badly to be Vice President or Secretary of State. Perhaps Bill cuts some sort of deal in a smoke-filled room somewhere. Maybe it goes to the Supreme Court for resolution (you know, those nice people in black robes who gave you the George W. Bush presidency), and they decide in her favor. Most likely she employs a combination of all these gambits, and collectively they could possibly give her enough delegates for a narrow technical (and very Pyrrhic) victory.
If any of these scenarios play out, Obama should leave the Democratic Party and run as a third-party candidate. Simple as that.
It would be the morally proper thing to do, and it just might even be successful, especially in the longer term.
If this seems an improbable quest, remember that Obama's support is quite passionate - he's not just your standard-issue marginal political preference for, say, Joe Biden over Chris Dodd. Nor would this be some personal (and absurd) vanity project, like Ross Perot's. His supporters would be outraged at the stealing of the nomination from its rightful owner, and they're a motivated bunch. Black voters would feel particularly slighted, and would be likely to follow Obama elsewhere. That alone would be enough to finish off the already badly-damaged Clinton candidacy in the general election. Given this moral high ground, too, I don't think Obama would be perceived as the Ralph Nader who gave the election to McCain. Perhaps, because of access restrictions, he wouldn't even be able to get on the ballot in many places, except as a write-in.
In the end, I don't think it much matters. If he can't win in 2008, the country will be ripe for the taking after four years of John McSame. And Obama has shown us nothing this last year if not excellence in organizing skills. There's plenty of time by 2012 to give birth to a real progressive party that has been aching to calve off from the Democrats for three decades now. If the Clintons and the Liebermans of this world want to hang tight with their DLC party of Diet Pepsi Wall Street, let them. If they feel a burning compulsion to become the Whigs of the 21st century, I for one won't stand in the way.
The idea of a third party alternative has long been a dream of progressives in America. It has also too often been a fantasy and a distracting albatross. Particularly since the Bill Clinton era of centrist sell-out - but really going back to the Reagan period of Democratic cowardice, the McGovern campaign of entrenched Party power acting shamelessly toward their nominee, and certainly the Johnson debacle in Vietnam - progressives have been looking to ditch the shell of the former New Deal now doing business as the corroded (and corrosive) Democratic Party.
Unfortunately - really, very unfortunately - it's an almost impossible trick to pull off given the structure of the American political system, and I have joined lots of other smarter people counseling against the effort, suggesting an attempt at hijacking the Democratic Party instead. Not for nothing was the last new major party born in America 150 years ago. It's not an accident that for about three-fourths of the country's history it's been Republicans or Democrats. Period.
Oddly enough, however, this is probably the year when the country could come closest in a long time to seeing the birth of a genuine third party. Theoretically, at least - if the right sequence of events transpired. It's probably a long-shot, and not my personal preference for the short-term, but it is feasible; it's probably the only way to imagine overcoming the considerable institutional barriers to creating a third party in America, and doing so would be just the shot of adrenalin this decrepit old political system needs. Moreover, there are - believe it or not - still some folks out there who don't yet get the damage done by conservatism in America. Another four years of the same may be just the tonic to finally seal that deal forever.
So, let me see here. We'd have a destroyed Republican Party, a destroyed Democratic Party, and a new progressive, "Fired-Up!" party rising out of their ashes. We could do a lot worse than that. And we could thank Hillary Clinton for it all, if it happens.
Sometimes a silver-lining can turn into a whole pot of gold. David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.