The Danger of Fighting On

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By Robert S. Strauss
Friday, May 16, 2008

This has been a strange political year, particularly for a man who has been consumed by politics and governance for seven of his nine decades. I have read, watched, listened to and studied this campaign. I was impressed by the strength and breadth of our Democratic candidates and believed that the country would have been well served by the nomination of any of them. But over the past few, very contentious months, and especially in recent weeks, I have come to feel compelled to insert myself into the debate on behalf of the party to which I have devoted my life.

I understand the consequences of a bitter nomination fight that goes to the floor of a national convention. I became chairman of the Democratic National Committee in December 1972, just a month after our disastrous presidential defeat and five months after a brutal and divisive Democratic convention in Miami. I was elected to put the party back together. It was perhaps the most difficult task of my life.

The fissures and distrust that became manifest over the 1972 campaign took years to heal. Veterans of that battle may still carry some of the scars. If I have one more contribution to make to the Democratic Party, it is perhaps to help us avoid repeating past mistakes.

I have not been engaged with any candidate, nor will I be. Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have waged brilliant campaigns organizationally, financially, programmatically and personally. Both should be exceedingly proud of what they have accomplished and how their debate has energized our great nation. America would be in good hands if either became president. But I am disturbed by the intensity of the debate, the longevity of the battle and the occasional personalization of the rhetoric. I love this country, and I love my party. I know the stakes of this election and the consequences of both success and failure.

I remember Ronald Reagan's ultimate political question: "Are you better off now than you were?" It's painful to compare the United States today with what it was in 2000. On indicator after indicator, we have fallen backward. Under the last Democratic administration, we had huge budget surpluses; now we wallow in debt. Real income was growing; now it is shrinking. The price of energy was contained; now it is out of control. We were at peace; now we are in a two-front war that threatens to expand to Iran. Before, America was at the pinnacle of respect, power and influence around the world; now we are held in contempt, even by our closest historic allies. Above all, the sense of optimism that defined the American dream has been shattered. Eight out of 10 Americans are convinced that our nation is going in the wrong direction. If ever there was a time, indeed a demand, for change, it is now.

If the Democratic Party cannot win with this hand of cards, maybe we don't deserve to. We have to make fundamental decisions. No matter whom we supported in our nominating process, and with whatever intensity, we have to focus on how much we want to practice the policies that we preach and how much we want to change the direction of our country. The battle has lasted 15 months. Tens of millions have participated, including record numbers of new voters, and the amount of campaign contributions has been unprecedented. We all should be proud of what has been accomplished. But Democrats should also understand that prolonging our internal war seriously endangers our chance to recapture the presidency.

John McCain has had an easy time over the past few months as the presumptive Republican nominee. All through the primaries, he never had to defend the disaster of the past eight years. McCain never had to play Republican defense. Simultaneously, however, the Democratic Party has been engaged in an epic war between two giants. McCain's best two months have coincided to the Democrats' worst two months. Despite this, we are beating McCain in the polls. I am convinced that he has seen his best days and his best numbers.

But that conviction is predicated on the Democratic Party shifting out of nominating mode. Our success depends on making this a debate between two parties, two visions and two generations of Americans -- a plebiscite on the past vs. the future. The process has been played, and it has been played out.

Democrats should rally around our nominee as soon as possible so the general election campaign can begin and the contrast between John McCain and the Democratic Party can be drawn for the American people. Having put our party back together after the 1972 convention, I know that every week of delay tempts a hardening of irreconcilable differences. If we are to win for America, the Democratic Party has to unite now.

Robert S. Strauss was chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1972 to 1977.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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