Do Democrats Fear Winning?

By: By Dick Meyer
By: By Dick Meyer

(CBS) The Democratic Party is choking.

Facing nothing but open field ahead, the team can’t get the ball in the end zone. The incumbent Republican president’s unpopularity is historically high. The country is opposed to the Iraq war and worried about the recession. Gas prices are heading toward $4 a gallon. John McCain, the Republican nominee, is the oldest presidential nominee in history.

But the Democrats can’t score. They’re not even on the field yet. They’re still stuck in the locker room of the primaries, bickering.

The veteran offensive line, the Clintonistas, won’t block for the young players at the skill positions, the Obamists. They have the ball and are perfectly poised to fumble.

In sports, there are always “gimme the ball” players, the super-confident stars who want the ball with three seconds left in the game. Clinton and Obama want the ball, alright, but the rest of the team doesn’t really want to win or know how to win. They’re choking.

This is pretty much the natural order of modern politics.

When I first started covering national politics for CBS News 23 years ago, the Democrats were coming off an especially inept performance in the 1984 campaign. The “Atari Democrat,” Gary Hart, was the man of new ideas and a disposition inclined against the party’s interest group establishment. Walter Mondale was the establishment. They bled each other through a long primary season and establishment managed to keep Hart down. The voters kept Mondale way down in November.

Since then, the party has continued to create rules (proportional representation) that encourage long, bloody primaries.

What’s very different about 2008 is that the Democrats in 1984 really never had a prayer against Ronald Reagan. In 2008, conditions are perfect for a Democratic victory. Only the hapless Democrats could blow this lead.

The primary campaign is now guaranteed to run for a few more months. Considering that the campaign basically began full-time in late November 2004, this has been by far the longest nominee selection marathon in history. It is a race that will likely sap the strength and enthusiasm of a once excited and bloodthirsty electorate of Democrats and independents. Despite the fact that there is not an especially wide policy gulf between the two candidates, the party could be divided when the primaries are over. Certainly the winner will be bloody against a healthy John McCain.

One obvious, but politically incorrect and cynical point is that it was always a very high-risk proposition for the party to nominate a woman or a black. As historically significant and uplifting as it is to shatter an old and embarrassing barrier, it is a risky way for a political party to seize power. No one has a clue what will happen with a white woman or a black man at the top of the ticket. But sending an unknown brand of warrior into battle against a uniquely weak enemy doesn’t make sense if you’ve been losing a long war.

Nor does carrying on with a flawed, Byzantine nomination process that encourages divineness, manipulation and tediousness.

The Democrats seem to have either a political death-wish or a dire fear of success. Don’t give us the ball, please. We’re happy to be the opposition party.

This begs a question: is there something about contemporary Democratism that is simply unsuited to governance? Is the party semi-dysfunctional because it lacks a philosophic core that is simple, sensible and attractive? Or is it just something about the personality of Democrats?

The country obviously wants an alternative to Bushism. It might well settle for McCainism.

This will be my last "Against the Grain" column. After 23 years at CBS News, I am moving my computer to National Public Radio. I hope to resume a column at NPR.org after I settle in and it may even reappear here eventually. If you would like to receive an e-mail when I start back up, send a note to Against the Grain. It has been a great privilege to write in this space for so many years, thank you.

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