Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A worry for Obama: are too many of his supporters Hillary haters?

On Marc Ambinder today there's a most insightful comment from Michael C. He writes:

Obama has a serious problem in that some of his major support is from hillary and bill haters: whether it is andrew sullivan or chris matthews or David geffin or the folks who blog here the negativity has begun to seriously overshadow the idea of his being a uniter. He says loud and clear on the debate last night that some of his supporters are over-zealous and this morning they still spout this tired clinton bashing. How does he run a positive campaign if the folks on the front line blogisphere can't reign in the hate? Remember they are the same party, the same wing of the party and nearly identical voting records. Hillary's supporters aren't here everyday saying they won't vote obama if he prevails but obama's people here are ready to vote pro-war republican or stay home. I have 16 years of love for Hillary but will be proud to vote dem for obama if she does not prevail. I hope the hatred doesn't ruin your health.

Making mean-spirited (and often unfair) personal attacks against Hillary Clinton is a favorite sport, of course, for many political pundits on the left and right. Obama's supporters are not the only ones to dwell on Clinton's alleged flaws. However, too many of them have failed to note the tension between (a) their own supposed support for a candidate whose message is to bring people together and overcome polarization, and (b) their hateful rhetoric based on leftover animosity from the 1990s, an entirely different era.

It's to Obama's considerable credit that he seems able to attract supporters from independents and the Republican party. Unfortunately, Obama seems to have attracted many supporters who back his candidacy primarily as an "anyone but Hillary" stand. Those supporters don't so much believe in Obama's message as they want to relish in one more angry, bitter attack on the Clinton family. They turn support for Obama into a tool for venting their partisanship or ideological warfare. Or, in the case of Andrew Sullivan, support for Obama is a way of punishing Republicans for not being conservative enough. Sullivan writes:

On the role of government, I'm far to his [Obama's] right. But after the GOP in the Bush years, I don't feel like punishing the Democrats for being big government. I feel like punishing the Republicans. They're the ones who've committed treason against conservatism, not the Democrats.

A successful Obama candidacy alone might not overcome polarized politics if it is won only by the support of Hillary haters, crypto Republicans, and anti-Bush conservatives. An Obama victory won by smearing the Clintons would taint the message that he represents a genuine way of moving beyond polarization: core Democrats would suspect that he really represents a repudiation of their values while Obama's newly won Republican supporters would not move an inch to help Obama actually attain his policy agenda.

However, if Obama were to share a ticket for the presidency with Clinton (either on the top or bottom half of a united ticket), then a vote for Obama would send a powerful signal that it is time for the country to move beyond polarization and move forward to help create a better, stronger, safer America. True, some Clinton haters would never vote for a ticket with the Clinton name attached because they are unwilling to let go of their vast reservoirs of anger and resentment. But for all those independents and Republicans who are inspired by Obama's speeches to come together and who are healed enough from the 1990s to look forward to the future, then a Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton ticket could be exactly the agent of change our country needs.

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