Matthew Dallek: Democratic unity still out of reach

Roundup: Historians' Take

When the primary season began, the Republican presidential candidates were bitterly divided, while the Democrats were satisfied with their choices. Arizona Sen. John McCain mocked former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as the “candidate of change.” Romney broadcast commercials castigating McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as liberals. Six months later, however, the Democratic Party is nursing its wounds, struggling to unify supporters of nominee-in-waiting Barack Obama and also-ran Hillary Rodham Clinton.

On matters of policy, the differences between Obama and Clinton are indeed small, and numerous pundits have predicted a rapid reversal of the primary enmity. Nonetheless, the divisions among their followers are not insignificant and easily bridged. In the history of modern primary campaigns, ideology is one, but far from the only, source of disunity between presidential candidates of the same party. Historically speaking, issues of class, gender, race and even personality have been nearly as poisonous in causing internecine strife as ideological infighting has been.

To Obama’s supporters, Sen. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign provides a reminder of how the primary winner’s supporters need to tread softly. During the California primary, Goldwater’s supporters attacked Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for remarrying and fathering a child with his second wife.

The anger boiled over during the national convention at the San Francisco Cow Palace. Goldwaterites loudly booed Rockefeller from the galleries when he addressed the country on national television. Goldwater, for his part, offended Rockefeller’s backers by defiantly declaring that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and belittling the virtues of the politics of moderation.

Obama is highly unlikely to repeat Goldwater’s fiery tirades and denunciations, of course. But his supporters must be genuinely committed to paying respect to Clinton; as Clinton herself put it, assuaging her backers after the hard-fought contest will be a sturdy challenge. The Rev. Michael Pfleger’s recent outburst is a reminder of just how difficult it will be for Obama’s team to keep his millions of enthusiastic backers on the same pro-Clinton message after such a bitter primary campaign.

The 1976 Republican primary battle, which pitted former California Gov. Ronald Reagan against President Gerald Ford, offers a case study in the power of words to foment divisions after the primary voting has ended. During that year’s GOP national convention, Reagan appeared at a pro-unity press conference with Ford. But in Reagan’s impromptu remarks to the convention delegates, he devoted few words to Ford’s candidacy and instead implored his own legions to “carry the message” of “individual freedom” forward through the fall and beyond. Reagan’s address teed up his 1980 White House run. It elevated the needs of his movement and his own ambitions above the short-term needs of Ford and the Republican Party...
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