Who’s best if Democrats want to win?

Political analysts say the Democratic presidential race is about gender, race and generational change. Maybe that’s so, at least in places such as New Hampshire, where it came down to Hillary Clinton’s gender and South Carolina, where it may come down to Barack Obama’s race.

Generally, though, Democrats tend to be pondering a far more practical question: Since it seems theirs to lose this time, and Lord knows they have the ability to lose it, which of these candidates, Clinton or Obama, is the best bet to win?

Or, put a more negative way — which is to say a more realistic way — which is most susceptible to getting destroyed Kerry-style and Dukakis-style by the Republicans?

The candidates are aware of these questions, and they seek to address them. Both make credible cases that they’re the better choice.

They can’t both be right. Or can they?

Hillary Clinton says she has been vetted. Boy, has she been vetted. She and her husband have been the Republicans’ public enemy No. 1 and 1A for the better part of two decades. There is very little left to investigate with them.

The dirty linen is out of the closet, and still, only 45 to 47 percent of the electorate abhors her to the point of voting for absolutely anyone instead of her. That leaves 53 to 55 percent, which is plenty in an anti-Republican year. All presidential races are close now.

Hillary contends that she is, in a way, inoculated against further attack. And, as her husband put it once, "Clintons don’t get swift-boated." That is to say they’re famous for war rooms and rapid responses.

Hillary points out that Obama is young, untested and a blank canvas upon which the Republicans could draw their dirty pictures. That’s not to say this would be fair, of course. Nor is Clinton suggesting there’s anything credibly awry about Obama. She simply recognizes and respects the record of effectiveness of Republican smears, you see.

For his part, Obama wonders why Democrats, confronted with this rare opportunity to win amid a burning public passion for dramatic change, would nominate someone old and conventional, by which you are welcome to infer, if you wish, "damaged." He points out that he keeps winning independents and new voters in Democratic primaries and caucuses while she relies on traditional Democrats. He points out that independents and new voters swing U.S. presidential elections.

He waxes eloquent about not fearing the negative but emphasizing the positive. He gazes upon Hillary’s negative rating and finds her not inoculated, but needlessly polarizing. He believes Democrats keep losing by painting themselves into corners, such as by plotting an electoral strategy dependent on one of the nation’s most Republican states, Ohio. He says Democrats should be smart for a change, which is to say wholly new and different.

Both arguments are decent. And both actually might be right.

Perhaps the choice is not zero-sum. Clinton may be correct in her calculus about how she wins and Obama may be sound in his as well. Maybe the Republicans are in such a predicament they can’t beat either one, regardless.

Democrats might lean to Clinton, but only out of fear of the unknown with Obama, about whom vile and nonsensical lies are already being spread. For the record: He’s not a Muslim and he has never been disrespectful to the flag.

But how about this: What if Democrats shoot the moon? Take them both, one at the top of the ticket and the other at the bottom, the order less consequential than the combination, immunized at one level and dramatically bold on the other.

Irresistibly exciting or needlessly risky? Or, again, both? That’s our next question, and another column.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

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