17 October 2007

Could the Democrats lose?

Lately many have been talking as if it's practically inevitable that a Democrat will win the Presidency next year. But is it? Is there a realistic possibility that a Republican could win the office, and that our present situation -- the incompetence, the reality-denial, the inaction on global warming, the hostility to stem-cell research, the erosion of church-state separation, the appointment of anti-Roe Supreme Court judges, etc. -- could drag on for another four or even eight years?

I think it's unlikely, but it is possible. There are at least four obvious ways it could happen.

The Nader factor: If there is a major third-candidate challenge from the left but none from the right, the Democratic candidate will lose with near-certainty. Such a "spoiler" wouldn't attract many votes, but he wouldn't need to; it would take only relatively few third-candidate voters to "flip" a few closely-divided states from blue to red, costing critical electoral votes. It happened in 2000. There are always a few people on the far left (and the far right, for that matter) who want to act like Samson pulling down the temple if the nominee does not meet their exact specifications. Would there be enough of them to deliver the White House to the Republicans in 2008? It's too soon to tell. At the moment, the Republicans seem more likely to suffer from a third-party attack than the Democrats, but there are still almost 13 months to go until the election. This danger may explain why Clinton made a concession to the hard left by promising a fast withdrawal from Iraq; so far it seems to be having the desired effect.

The Beslan factor: I've long believed that part of why Bush was re-elected in 2004 was the Muslim terrorist attack in Beslan, Russia, two months before the election. On a certain level this was the most horrific terrorist attack of all, since it targeted children. Viewing the ghastly pictures of the attack's aftermath, it was all too easy for the average American voter to imagine something similar happening at his or her own child's school. Probably this horror strengthened the impulse to vote for the candidate perceived as "tougher" -- the man more capable of intimidating, and thus deterring, the Muslims. A major terrorist attack in 2008, even if it is not within the US, could have a similar effect. Clinton's hawkish stance compared with most other Democrats would minimize the loss of votes in such a case, but not eliminate it entirely.

The Bill factor: Many a promising politician has seen his hopes suddenly implode due to a scandal or even just a high-profile embarrassment -- Gary Hart being probably the most memorable example. Hillary Clinton doesn't strike me as the type who would do anything to put her political success at risk -- but her husband has a track record of being reckless about such things. Revelations of a new episode of sexual infidelity on his part could make Hillary Clinton look pitiable and weak, a deadly image for a Presidential candidate. I think that such an event is unlikely -- Bill Clinton is intelligent and has probably learned from the consequences of his past mistakes -- but it can't be ruled out.

The wrong nominee: I'm convinced that both Obama and Edwards are substantially less electable than Clinton. Both of them come across as less experienced, less tough, less savvy about politics and about the complex and dangerous world outside our borders. I have a hard time imagining either of them coming out very well in a no-holds-barred debate with, say, Giuliani. Obama's exotic name and background (especially the Muslim associations), and the disconnect between Edwards's personal wealth and his populist stance, would repel some voters and would certainly be ruthlessly exploited by the Republican attack machine in a general election. (I don't think Obama would lose many votes to racism, not because racism doesn't exist, but because most racists would never vote for any Democrat in the first place.) The polls bear this out; Clinton does better in most one-on-one matchups with likely Republican nominees than Edwards or Obama do.

As I say, I think the odds are that none of these things will happen and that Republican rule will end with the next election. But we shouldn't indulge in over-confidence.

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