The Washington Times

The 2008 presidential election will be a wide-open contest. Democrats are responding to this fact with gusto, as a gaggle of serious candidates has already come forward. The Republican field seems, by contrast, thin — or at least thinner than one would expect. How come? Actually, the reasons are straightforward in both cases. On the Democratic side, Hillary Rodham Clinton has long been front-runner. But a funny thing happened on the way to her coronation in 2008: Democrats have decided that they are not in the mood to declare a consensus candidate early.     

This is more than the story of the anti-war left’s new prominence on the Democratic side, though that is an important element. It also reflects a debate within the party on the relationship between political effectiveness and Democratic Party values.     

There are those who say that the most important political task for Democrats is to offer a sharp contrast to the Republicans, and then to marry this more liberal ideological message to an attractive candidate. The group divides between those who think that such an effort has a good chance of success and those who are prepared to offer this alternative and lose now if necessary, while doing the long-term party-building and ideological work that will provide a more favorable electoral environment for an avowedly progressive candidate.   

On the other hand, there are those who think that because the electorate overall tilts center-right rather than center-left, Democrats need to be deliberate about making a pitch to the center. Again, we can see two main subgroups. There are those who think that Democrats need to be less than forthcoming about their progressive ideological intentions, and there are those who think that a presidential nominee, in order to be successful, actually has to embody centrist values.     

As for those in the first subgroup, most would prefer to think of themselves as favoring action to inoculate their candidate against criticism from the right: for example, say that you’re opposed to same-sex “marriage” but oppose amending the Constitution. We all know that a number of Democrats who have taken this position are not, in fact, opposed to same-sex “marriage” but find what they take to be a politically viable position here. The hypocrisy is undeniable, but they can sustain it while looking themselves in the mirror because they support judges who have an enlightened view on the subject.    

I don’t know where the Democratic Party is going to come out on these questions in 2008, and neither do the Democrats. In truth, they are perennial issues. Republicans have similar divisions. But the problem is especially acute for Democrats for one elemental reason — because, at least for now, the distance between the left wing of the Democratic Party and 51 percent of the vote is farther than the distance between the right wing of the Republican Party and 51 percent of the vote.     

Any resolution of this matter within the Democratic Party will be a temporary one: Partisans of all points of view will live to fight another day. But the effect to date has been to make a lot of room for Democratic candidates.     

Who is Hillary Clinton? Is she the most plausible Democrat in a general election, or is she the least plausible? Is she positioning herself as a centrist, or is she actually more centrist than the rest of the field? Does she have in mind co-opting the more liberal wing of the party on the basis of her supposedly true underlying faith and the portrait she paints of her own appeal to the middle, or does she have in mind defeating — and I mean crushing — the liberal wing of the party and once they are beaten, inviting them to join her on her terms?    

Is Al Gore a has-been, or has he re-energized himself with his environmental activism, calling forth a more general and more genuine and appealing political profile? He seems to have made an entirely successful transition from the pragmatic side to the more ideological side of the party: He’s a man with a mission.    

Is John Kerry washed up, or is losing the best way to learn the lessons you need to win? It would be the ultimate pragmatic calculation.     

John Edwards, meanwhile, has learned how to integrate the quickness he demonstrated as a trial lawyer into the discipline he showed on the stump the last time around. He is also a figure of substantially more heft, thanks to his work on Russia.     

For a purely ideological character, there’s Russ Feingold, darling of the netroots. For a purely anti-Washington play, there’s Mark Warner, the successful ex-governor. Wesley Clark looks like he’s in uniform even when he’s wearing a sport coat, if that matters. And then there’s Joe Biden, because who knows?     

All in all, it’s a field worthy of the wide-open moment, worthy of a party that feels itself to be a true opposition party — but one on the rebound. The options are not few and claustrophobic — like the Clinton consensus — but many.     

Next week: What’s up with the Republican Party?