This election season has proved to be one of the most exciting ones of this generation. Neither party began the season with an heir apparent. Both parties began the season with a huge pool of hopefuls, ranging from old-school policy-wonks like Joe Biden and Chris Dodd to rank-and-file ideologues like Fred Thompson and Jim Gilmore. But voters in both parties were (mostly) tired of the same-old and, as a result, shooed away many otherwise sensible candidates.
To this end, a relatively unaccomplished one-term senator from Illinois and a Baptist preacher-turned-governor of Arkansas defied conventional wisdom and began the election cycle with stunning upsets in the Iowa caucuses.
Though both fields winnowed in a short amount of time, neither party went in to Super Tuesday with a pre-ordained nominee. While the Republican nomination is all but in the hands of John McCain, the Democratic race is as tight as could be. To be sure, this is more a function of rules. If the Republicans used the same proportional voting methods as the Democrats, both parties would share an impasse.
As I have sat back watching returns and punditry week after week, I cannot help but sense the immense psychological damage of these primaries to both parties. The course of affairs in the post-smoked-filled-rooms era usually consists of a bit of nominal quarreling followed by a Super Tuesday sweep and topped off with the launching of two dueling national campaigns. This season has proved to buck all potential trends. For the first time since 1968, both parties are torn apart by internal forces. In both cases, the battle scars of the primary season could easily steal the election from their grasps in November.
On the Democratic side, the battle is less over ideology and more over which clique will win the day.
Hillary Clinton represents the “in-crowd,” a group of moderately liberal Democrats who have been successful in the electorate but have bucked the party line on issues like free trade, domestic economic policy and foreign policy.
Barack Obama is the newly ordained voice of the left wing of the Democratic Party. He speaks in broad (and wholly empty) terms that appeal to young people, blacks, independents and other reliable Democrats. Though his ideology smacks of extreme leftism, his insistence on positive progress has resonated among independents.
On the Republican side, one phrase comes to mind with respect to the “party of Reagan”: requiescat in pace.
The once-jovial alliance of fiscal, social and foreign policy conservatives was dead on arrival. Mitt Romney, though he was the Johnny-come-lately darling of fiscal conservatives, failed to ignite mass support, with many suspicious of his past flip-flopping. Mike Huckabee became the champion of the socially conservative wing of the Republican Party, so often taken for granted in swing states and the South. Though he pushed through a solid win in Iowa, he lacked the funds or the staff to mount a national campaign.
The heir-apparent is the old warhorse, John McCain, who represents the foreign policy wing of the party. Though McCain is certainly not a solid conservative, he is no more liberal than “Billary,” as Ann Coulter seems to suggest.
Though both parties have faced and will continue to face different sorts of challenges this electoral season, there are common threads that run between them. Both parties have candidates who are spokesmen for the taken-for-granted wings of their respective parties (Huckabee for social conservatives and Obama for African Americans). Both parties have spent tens of millions of dollars attacking members of their own party. And, most importantly, both parties will certainly have nominees who alienate large segments of the base.
Conservatives do not like John McCain. Independents love Barack, but would easily jump on board Warship McCain if Clinton squeaks by the Democratic National Convention.
What does this all mean? The answer is really quite simple. A bruised and battered electorate might just stay home on Election Day. Or, better yet, that same electorate might support en masse third parties, as was the case in 1968 and 1992. Time will tell, but one thing is for sure: if a house divided cannot stand, a party divided cannot stand for election.
Ramey is a graduate student.