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The Worrywart Party

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008; Page A13

DENVER -- If they want to win in November, Democrats have one task to accomplish this week: Snap out of it.

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Somehow, tentativeness and insecurity have infected a party that ought to be full of confident swagger. It's not that Democrats don't like their odds of winning the presidency and boosting their majorities in both houses of Congress. It's that they are even bothering to calculate and recalculate those odds.

That's what you could catch Democrats doing last weekend as they assembled for the convention. We'll win, they would say, but we just have to do this or Barack Obama just has to do that or the Clintons have to do this, that and the other. And the stars have to align just so.

People, the stars don't line up any more auspiciously than this. George W. Bush is to presidential unpopularity what Michael Phelps is to aquatic velocity. The Republican candidate for president is a wooden, uncharismatic denizen of Washington whose "maverick" image belies the fact that he has supported Bush on practically every big issue. The economy is sagging, the financial system is in crisis and gasoline prices remain punishingly high. In recent polls, as many as eight out of 10 Americans have said the country is on the wrong track. You don't need a soothsayer to read omens like these.

Since I landed here Saturday night, though, I haven't heard a lot of Democrats crowing about the terrible whuppin' they're about to administer. I've heard predictions of victory, yes, but also a lot of questions. Will Hillary Clinton's die-hard supporters refuse to lay down their arms, even if their champion begs them to? Will an unreconciled Bill Clinton steal the show? Will Obama's acceptance speech at Invesco Field be so stirring and poetic that the Republicans will slam him again for excessive eloquence?

In other words: Are Hillary Clinton's followers, many of whom care deeply about women's issues, ready to accept a Supreme Court majority that would do away with Roe v. Wade, which John McCain would surely deliver? Has Bill Clinton forgotten everything he ever learned about politics and forsaken his lifelong loyalty to the Democratic Party? Would Obama be wise to effectively renounce the use of his great oratorical gifts, which constitute one of his most powerful and effective weapons?

All these questions are just excuses to fret. Unlike Republicans, Democrats like to obsess about what could go wrong. It's kind of a partisan hobby.

I was going to say that the Republican Party's hobby is driving Democrats crazy with worry, but the truth is that the Democrats are doing this to themselves.

People here complain that the polls are too close for comfort, forgetting that there is rarely anything comfortable about a presidential contest. When was the last time a non-incumbent Democrat cruised to the White House? Clinton, remember, won only a 43 percent plurality of the popular vote in 1992. You have to go all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Why would anyone think for a moment that Obama could win this without a fight?

I'm being somewhat unkind, because the truth is that the Democratic Party has tried mightily this year to fight its depressive tendencies. The party is even playing offense for a change, taking the fight to McCain in states that used to be a forgone conclusion for the Republicans. Here in Colorado, recent polls show Obama with a small but significant lead; in Virginia, which hasn't gone Democratic since 1964, the race is a dead heat.

As for the Democratic states that McCain is trying to contest, Democrats should take the advice of Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. On Saturday, as Joe Biden was being announced as Obama's running mate, Rendell was asked how to keep his state in the Democratic column. His answer, and I'm paraphrasing here, was to quit whining about it and just go out and win the state. He helped the Clintons pummel Obama in the primary, and he pronounced himself raring to help Obama and Biden do the same to McCain in the general.

Even with the fundamentals teed up and the stars smiling, winning the White House was never going to be a walk in the park for any Democrat. The party will have had a successful convention if, at the end of the week, Democrats stop all the worrying and declare a moratorium on second-guessing. Go shake some hands and kiss some babies.

The writer's e-mail address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com. He'll be live online to answer questions at 1 p.m. Read more from Eugene Robinson at washingtonpost.com's new opinion blog, PostPartisan.


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