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What It Will Take For Democrats to Unite

By Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin

(Authors' Note: Barack Obama and his supporters are starting to reach out to Hillary Clinton and her supporters with a new understanding and respect. The two candidates appeared jointly in New Hampshire yesterday. That will be followed tonight by thousands of "Unite for Change" house parties across the country where the Obama campaign hopes supporters of other candidates will come together to support the nominee. These are positive efforts, but we do not see an easy path to harmony. In the trenches -- on the blogs, and in many informal debates including the authors' Clinton vs. Obama household -- the decibel levels have declined but supporters of both candidates continue the fight. Both sides are far more aware of the slights and insults coming from the other side than they have been of their own side's contribution to the acrimony. Clinton and Obama supporters have enough time before the Convention in August to gain perspective and build connections to reunite the party for victory, but there is real work to be done.)

After a long primary campaign, Barack Obama is now the Democratic nominee for president. The dream of America advancing to the point where it could elect the first woman president must be deferred and no one can say for how long. Women who feel they have waited a lifetime for a chance to vote for a woman for President now must wait even longer. In addition to this disappointment, there is real anger about how the campaign was conducted and covered in the media.

Some of Clinton's supporters may end up voting for John McCain because they prefer his experience, and some may choose to sit the election out. Each choice is their right as citizens, but most Clinton supporters will eventually vote for Barack Obama. The real work to be done is not about votes, it is about healing strained relationships within a political party, and in this civil war of a primary, within families and workplaces, so all of us can truly join in the celebration when Barack Obama makes history by taking the nomination in Denver.

In the Hollywood formula, there is a recurring scene in movies as diverse as Star Wars and the Devil Wears Prada, where one character surprisingly saves their rival's life (or perhaps their job, reputation, or alibi) when both realize they can trust each other because they are united in their cause. Then someone says in the idiom of the day, "Don't worry, partner, I've got your back." Democrats should want to get to a version of this scene before the Convention in Denver so we can all enjoy the celebration we deserve - young and old, black, white, brown, rainbow, blue collar, white collar, pink collar, women and men, arm in arm singing "Happy Days Are Here Again."

There is no way to get to this happy place without working through some serious issues. Clinton supporters want someone to take seriously the charge of sexism they believe was rampant in the media and was occasionally coming from the Obama campaign. Obama supporters respond by charging the Clinton campaign with racism. Supporters of both candidates are continuing in campaign mode - unwilling to admit any error on their side and ready with a long list of examples of the other side's transgressions. The simple truth is that both sides crossed the line, and neither candidate is entirely innocent and pure. The vestiges of growing up in a racist and sexist society will creep into the speech and thought patterns of even the most diligently politically correct.

The lists of transgressions are well established. A lot of the anger Clinton supporters are experiencing is directed toward the media: Tucker Carlson suggesting that Senator Clinton makes him fear castration; Chris Matthews' suggestion that Clinton owes her Senate seat to Monica Lewinsky, and aggressive commentaries from Keith Olbermann and Maureen Dowd. But beyond questioning Barack Obama's silence on these slights, Obama and his campaign made several of their own errors.

Obama dismissed a female reporter's question with, "hold on one second, sweetie" (he did not get back to her question but did publicly apologize for using the term). The Obama campaign celebrated its Iowa victory by playing Jay-Z's "99 Problems" which prominently features the "b-word." And perhaps most opportunistically, Obama countered Clinton's claims of international experience from her time as First Lady by suggesting that his international experience was more than just "what world leaders I went and talked to in the ambassador's house I had tea with," and other phrases designed to invoke demeaning gender stereotypes. Many Clinton supporters believe this primary season has been a lesson in how far women have yet to go to be seen as worthy of controlling the full measure of American power.

Rather than engaging this discussion, Obama supporters tend to counter-attack on the subject of race. The claims of racist remarks coming from the Clinton campaign have been exhaustively reported in the press, but the clearest transgression, and coming directly from the candidate herself, was the remark recorded and reported by USA Today. A tired Senator Clinton, who later apologized for the comment said the following in May in answer to a question about how she could still win the nomination, "There was an AP article posted that found how Senator Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me." To Obama supporters this was a candid admission that Clinton was willing to be the beneficiary of American racist attitudes if it delivered her the nomination.

Intra-party partisans will doubtless read the above paragraphs as confirmation that their side was the more wronged, but our point is neither side should read the above and deny that their side slipped up. As Democrats, we should accept the imperfections of our political leaders as we accept the challenge to work to move America forward even if it takes more than a generation to completely eradicate racism, sexism, and other "-isms" from our speech and thought patterns.

The good news is there is a very good chance that the next president will not be a white male. Voters in the Democratic Party made an early decision that no matter how well Senators Biden, Dodd, and Edwards debated, the party could muster little enthusiasm for nominating someone of their pigment and gender orientation. Long before selecting its nominee, the moment center of the Democratic electorate reached a verdict that this IS going to be a change election.

Between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the first woman candidate and the first African American candidate with a realistic chance to win the nomination and become elected President, someone had to win. Barack Obama did win. Hillary supporters need to understand his victory was legitimate, biased media coverage notwithstanding. And even if Michigan and Florida had been normally contested and every vote counted, other things being equal, Obama would still be the nominee.

Obama earned the victory through his own talent. The view of many Clinton supporters of Obama as an empty suit, all rhetoric and no substance, never really held water any more than did the view of Clinton as an uncaring unethical monster who would do anything to win. Both sides need to validate rather than diminish the roughly 18 million voters who turned out for each of the candidates. They were not duped nor were they voting their gender, race, and age. Rather, the historic levels of turnout for both candidates were earned and deserved.

So what should the guests do at the Unite for Change parties? They should treat each other with respect. Each guest should try to get over the habit of denying any wrongdoing by their own candidate and responding to the other side's concerns by sharpening their attacks. The primary campaign is over.

But most importantly party guests should refocus on the long list of areas where we all agree. As Democrats we stand in opposition to racism AND sexism. One lasting legacy of the Clinton campaign should be a unified recommitment to reversing the backlash against feminism and a great place to start would be a vigilant defense of Michelle Obama against overt and veiled sexist and racist characterizations.

We all agree on the need to responsibly change course in Iraq, and to strengthen the effectiveness of our military by enhancing our nation's ability to project economic, cultural, and diplomatic force. We agree on the need for new economic policies that give tax relief, affordable health care and other supports to hard working families, and on the need for a forward looking energy policy that uses federal government leadership to help transition the economy away from fossil fuels to new energy realities.

The Unite for Change house party guests should move beyond denial to respect, so we can all move forward. And they should practice singing "Happy Days Are Here Again" together. We like the Barbara Streisand version best.

The authors are co-editors of CenteredPolitics.com and have been struggling over the past year in a Clinton vs. Obama marriage. Allan Rivlin is a Partner with Peter D. Hart Research a Public Opinion Research firm in Washington, DC.

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