Whenever longtime Democrats gather to note how the chemistry and calculus of the 2008 campaign seem to favor their party this year, one or another will always add some version of the following: "Yeah, but we could screw this up before it's over."
After the past few days, the pertinent question to ask is, is the crack-up happening already? Far-fetched as it would have seemed a month ago, the seeds of self-destruction are being planted in the war of coded words about race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The bickering has exploded in the space of a week into Topic A in the Democratic race, supplanting for the moment the war and the economy and health care and shows no sign of a quick resolution.
So yes, are the Democrats about to screw it up yet again?
Both campaigns are stoking this fire and worrying at the same time about what this could do to them in the fall. They ought to be concerned: Keep this up and neither candidate may be able to marshal the votes from the various corners of the Democratic coalition that he or she will need in the fall. As pollster Andrew Kohut has noted, a party which found that it had at least two candidates who were seen as widely "acceptable" to its various factions just a few weeks ago could soon find that happy consensus has evaporated.
The mess began as these things almost always do in a normal tit for tat between the candidates. After Obama was poised to surge past Clinton after Iowa, Clinton charged that Obama was raising "false hopes" with his soaring rhetoric that emphasized ends over means. Obama skewered Clinton right back in New Hampshire, asking where the nation would be if both JFK in making a manned mission to the moon a goal or Martin Luther King Jr. (in his 1963 Lincoln Memorial speech) had instead shut down their visions and told America they were simply too hard to achieve. Delivered with humor and always to soaring applause, Obama's was a devastating rejoinder.
But then Clinton came back and, far less artfully, said that King's visions were great, but it took an experienced politician like Lyndon Johnson to get them enacted. At the very least, Clinton had equated the sometimes crass master of the legislative backroom with one of America's patron saints. (The real problem is that Clinton seemed to put LBJ on a pedestal higher than King's.) That was probably not her intention, but neither was this her best example in the deeds-not-words crusade she was on. In any case, at that point, things began to unravel.
Now we have both campaigns accusing the other of stoking the fire, of deliberately misunderstanding the other (and there is a lot of that going on, here, too) and both sides have had their various lieutenants and seconds trying to "help" explain things, which almost always makes things worse. That much was clear over the weekend, when BET founder Bob Johnson, in trying to defend the Clintons, appeared to all the world to be bringing up Obama's admitted history of drug use (Johnson later claimed he was actually referring to Obama's history as a community organizer, a laughable explanation that only dug the hole deeper.)
It hasn't helped matters that one of the men to whom the party has turned to defuse these fights in the past is conflicted out of this one. Bill Clinton's comment that the Obama campaign or Obama's Iraq war position, depending on who you believe was "a fairy tale" makes it impossible for him to play that role here. It's going to take some rare and wise soul to sort this one out both candidates ought to get on the phone to liberal evangelist Jim Wallis, who knows their hearts well and hosted them both in a forum about faith last summer.
Until then, the Democratic race is sidetracked on a direction that leads, like a scene from one of those Back to the Future movies, off a cliff. Yesterday on Meet The Press, Clinton said at one point she did not think either she or Obama wanted to "inject race or gender in this campaign." By the time she said those words, it was already too late.