New-direction Dems Try to Seize the Moment

Ex-Colorado Sen. Gary Hart boarded the Dump Hillary bandwagon over the weekend. So did ex-New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. Both endorsed Iowa caucus winner Sen. Barack Obama for president.“As one who has struggled throughout a lifetime for restoration of idealism to American politics, I can only smile, and perhaps shed a tear of happiness, that our time may have come,” Hart wrote in a Huffington Post blog item.

Let’s put the emphasis where it should be in that quote – on the “may have.”

If Obama wins the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, he may have separated himself from the quixotic dreams of former would-be reformers.

Hart and Bradley — and to a lesser degree current national Democratic chairman Howard Dean — each tried to reinvent the Democrats in campaigns for their party’s presidential nomination.

Each failed.

Hart’s lack of experience as a one-term senator took him down in 1984. He couldn’t take care of his extra-marital monkey business with Donna Rice when he was the front-runner in 1988.

Bradley’s performance on the court as a professional basketball star excited fans, but it was never flamboyant. His bookish, boring 2000 presidential campaign never scored with Democratic voters.

Dean fired up younger voters as an alternative to the status quo in 2004. The ex-Vermont governor raised tons of money on the Internet, but lost a big lead in the Iowa caucuses, then dropped New Hampshire to eventual Democratic nominee John Kerry.

Bradley’s statement Sunday endorsing Obama reflects the differences in times and personalities that may make a new kind of Democratic candidate possible.

“Barack Obama is building a broad new coalition that brings together Democrats, independents and Republicans by once again making idealism a central focus of our politics,” Bradley said. “Because of his enormous appeal to Americans of all ages and backgrounds, Obama is the candidate best positioned to win in November.”

National polls show that depends on the Republican candidate. Presidentelectionpolls.com averages the results of most public opinion polls. The website shows Obama moving from a losing position against Republican Rudy Giuliani in January 2007 to a seven percentage point lead in December 2007.

Obama led Republican Mitt Romney by double digits in national polls throughout 2007.

Interestingly, the national poll averages pulled together by Presidentelectionpolls.com’s David Terr show Obama would have the most trouble beating Republican John McCain. Obama went from a narrow lead over McCain to being tied with the Arizona senator by December.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, long perceived as the Democrats’ front-runner, shows similar margins over Giuliani and Romney in averaged national polls for December 2007. But the New York senator and ex-First Lady trails McCain by two percentage points.

There seems little doubt that new-direction Democrats have chosen this moment to try to stage their coup. Hillary Clinton symbolizes an entrenched model. Even in a presidential victory, some Dems see Clinton as a divider not a “uniter,” to use a disingenuous term coined by the White House’s currently divisive resident.

The risk comes in picking inspiration over experience. This is really what the Obama-Clinton battle boils down to. As political pragmatists will tell you, nothing inspires so much as victory. As Gary Hart, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean know, you accomplish next to nothing without holding office.

The wild card for Obama may still be race. In 1990, Doug Wilder of Virginia became the country’s first elected African-American governor. The polls showed him with a comfortable lead on Election Day. He won by a much narrower margin.

Fiscally moderate and socially progressive, Wilder tested a presidential run in 1992 and got buried by indifference.

Wilder came out for Obama over the weekend, too.

“Our country needs a leader who can unite and inspire our citizens, a leader who can see things with a fresh eye, and a leader who can move beyond the parochialisms of the past,” Wilder said in his endorsement statement. “We need a leader whom people want to rally around with the confidence that positive change is on the way.”

These days, Hart insists a candidate’s ethnicity no longer matters.

“The torch has been passed to a new generation of American leaders, and we don’t care what color it is,” Hart wrote in the Huffington Post.

We’ll see. If Obama wins in New Hampshire Tuesday, the United States is a step closer to proving that. But it is still a long way from choosing a new vision for itself.

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Jim Spencer

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