|Meet your new President.|
It has become a cliché among the political punditry that the only thing standing between the Democrats and the White House are… Democrats themselves. With the notable exception of Bill Clinton, Democratic candidates and their party faithful seem congenitally incapable of putting together a candidacy that can win the support not just of Independents and the scant Republican crossover voter but of their own motley base. Barack Obama’s resounding victory in the South Carolina primary pretty much rings the death knell on the chances for a Democratic victory in the fall and, I would say, guarantees that our next president will be John McCain.
It would appear that Democrats learned nothing from the debacle of the 2000 election. That election showed the profound impact that a fracture in their base could have — had Ralph Nader not shaved just a few percentage points off the totals for Al Gore, there would have been no need for a Supreme Court coronation of George Bush. This time it’s worse. As has been noted [many times], outside of the Democratic party Hillary Clinton is not a very popular character. Her chances in a general election were dicey to begin with unless she faced a particularly weak Republican and, as McCain ascends, that looks unlikely. A full-on challenge to her from within her own party is evidence that even Democrats are not satisfied with their choices. And the nature of the dissatisfaction — as evidenced in the South Carolina vote — must encourage the Republicans. Obama won South Carolina with overwhelming support from blacks (78%) and women (54%), but fewer than one out of four white Democrats voted for him. And these are white Democrats. A Democrat cannot win the general election without picking up Southern states and they cannot win Southern states without white votes.
To a great extent this primary season has been about voting in protest. Huckabee comes from behind to win Iowa because the evangelical base doesn’t like Romney or McCain and is not willing to “play along” in the interests of party unity. Similarly, Obama makes his name in Iowa as the anti-Hillary change agent and in South Carolina as the Great Black Hope of this generation. But the Republicans are falling into line behind a front-runner more quickly than are the Democrats. McCain effectively derailed the far-right smear machine in South Carolina and now looks to win Florida, as well. If he can avoid a brokered convention — where the wing-nuts could mount a challenge to him — he will go into the general election in very good shape. He has appeal not just to moderate Republicans and Independents but also conservative Democrats and his soft support on the far-right will turn to stone in the face of either Clinton or Obama.
We can already write the history of this campaign: after eight failed years of Republican rule it looked like the Democrats had a lock on the White House, but their leading candidate — a controversial woman with lots of baggage — faced a challenge from within her party from a candidate that fractured the base. The result was a Republican presidency and a Democratic congress, which is just the way America seems to like it. The more things change, the more they stay the same.