By Julia Baird; NEWSWEEK; Mar 24, 2008 Issue
For the past five years, a group of friends, mostly military wives or retired government workers, have been meeting for lunch at an Italian restaurant called Amici’s in a strip mall in Stafford, Va. All Democrats, they don’t come just for the wood-fired pizza or $8.99 lunch buffet. They come to talk about their beloved party. But lately, the air has chilled in the Tuscan-themed room.
At the lunch after Clinton’s loss in Virginia, Alicia Knight, 49, a Hillary supporter, came in late. The only spare chair was between two Obama supporters, both old friends of Knight’s. “I was so angry, I didn’t want to sit between them, so I sat by myself at another table,” she says. “It’s become like the cold war: in order to maintain the relationship, you don’t talk to each other.” Recently, the Clinton and Obama groups began lunching separately. “We couldn’t take the bashing, the smirkiness of the Obama fans,” says Linda Berkoff, 63.
It’s unclear exactly when the primaries stopped being a joyous occasion for the Democrats. But as the weeks have ground on, the intensity between Democrats who disagree has calcified, the vitriol grown fiercer. According to exit polling in the Texas primary, 91 percent of Clinton supporters said they would be dissatisfied with Obama as the nominee; 87 percent of Obama fans said they would be dissatisfied with Clinton. Nationally, a quarter of those who back Clinton say they’d vote for John McCain if Obama won the nomination (while just 10 percent of Obama supporters would do the same if he lost).
For many Democrats, what started out as a glowing opportunity for a historic presidency has become a depressing display of division and anger trumping reason. Because the policy differences between Clinton and Obama are minor, the debate is not about substance; it’s been mainly about character and identity in a contest between a black man and a white woman. Historians insist that intraparty bitterness is nothing new. But growing anger about perceived racism and sexism is souring what was once excitement among Democrats about an embarrassment of riches. Now many are embarrassed that the party which prides itself on diversity is battling its own prejudices. Unaffiliated Democratic strategist Donna Brazile believes it has become “a brewing internal civil war.”
Even the candidates are concerned. Last Thursday, Obama pulled Clinton aside on the Senate floor. In a three-minute conversation that Obama aides, who asked for anonymity in recounting a private talk, described as cordial, Obama told Clinton that it was important for them to tamp down the more-inflammatory and controversial statements of surrogates. Last week Clinton finance-committee member Geraldine Ferraro resigned from the campaign after speaking dismissively about Obama, arguing that he could not have come this far if he were white. Earlier this month, Obama adviser Samantha Power called Clinton a “monster” and had to resign. Now, both candidates agreed, it was time to rein in such people before more harm was done.
Much of that harm, it seems, is in the tenor of the debate—in insults about age, experience, gender, race, religion. Norman Ornstein, a political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says the attacks over race and gender have created “a level of tension inside liberal, elite ranks that is not something we’ve seen before.” All this, of course, is made more acute by the technology enabling instant, angry political debate. “Every fight, every attack is not just a New York Times story, but it’s magnified by the blogosphere and 24-hour cable news that rehashes and rehashes it over and over again,” he says. “Every sore gets rubbed raw.”
Still, despite the tension at places like Amici’s, historians dismiss the idea that there is something unique about this year’s voter angst. Alan Brinkley, a professor of history at Columbia University, says, “I don’t think the level of vitriol is particularly high by the standards of recent elections.” What is different, he says, is the length of the primary race, and the fact that it’s “the role of gender and race,” this time around, that have escalated the passions. Beverly Gage, a political historian at Yale University, says politics is no more nasty today than in the past. She points to 1920, when Warren Harding was running and opponents, hoping to tap into racist views of the time, circulated a rumor that he had “Negro blood.” In other primaries, the fight between Democrats has been just as, if not more, bitter: 1948, 1968, 1980 and 1984. Charles Kaiser, author of “1968 in America,” says the parallels to 1968 are remarkable, especially in the manner in which Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy attacked each other. “The left is devoting all its energy to fighting itself rather than fighting the real enemy,” says Kaiser.
But these fights took place decades ago; the battle between Clinton and Obama supporters is clearly the fiercest in a generation. Brazile says the problem is not the vitriol, but the fact that old demons—of “misogyny and slavery”—are being revived. “These are the wounds that don’t heal so easily.” And this, history tells us, will take more than three minutes on the Senate floor.