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Democrats divided over uniting

It says something about modern politics that Sen. Barack Obama has faced some of his sharpest attacks over the charge that he's too conciliatory.
/ Source: National Journal

It says something about modern politics that Sen. has faced some of his sharpest attacks over the charge that he's too conciliatory.

Liberal activists who consider Sen. suspiciously centrist complain that Obama hasn't "taken off the gloves" against her in the Democratic presidential race. From another angle, former Sen. ridicules Obama's pledge to reduce the influence of insurance and drug companies but still provide them a voice in negotiations on health care reform. There's no negotiating with these business interests, Edwards insists: The only way to achieve universal coverage is to beat them.

Obama has given a nod to the first critics by sharpening his differences with Clinton. But he is holding his ground against Edwards and like-minded liberals who maintain that major change won't come unless the next president rallies Democrats for a crusade against the economic and ideological forces that they believe stand in the party's way. Obama argues the reverse: Big change won't come unless the next president builds a broad coalition that attracts voters and constituencies beyond the party's base. "No party has a monopoly on wisdom or virtue," Obama said in an interview. And real progress, he insists, isn't possible with just "a 50-plus-one majority."

Those are not easy arguments to sell today. Two terms of bruising combat with President Bush have left many Democrats dubious about any compromise with Republicans and their allies. And anyone counseling more cooperation amid such unremitting conflict between the parties can strike many partisans as dreamy and naive.

Those sentiments have compelled Obama to walk a thin line as he promotes reconciliation. One telling example is his intensifying attempt to woo blue-collar voters, who have been cool to his candidacy. Although national polls don't report improvement for Obama with those voters, the latest New Hampshire surveys show some gains, and his aides say that their private polling indicates greater progress in Iowa.

Obama has pursued blue-collar voters with a concerted effort to demonstrate empathy for their economic problems. He has proposed mandates on business to provide health insurance (or contribute to covering the uninsured) and tougher regulation to protect pensions and guarantee paid sick leave for all workers. His aim, as a new television ad puts it, is to show that he will "look out" for working Americans left "high and dry" by unscrupulous companies.

Yet Obama doesn't equate defending employees with demonizing employers. He says as president he would consider business perspectives and where possible advance his priorities through "market mechanisms" -- such as a cap-and-trade system to combat global warming -- that businesses can support. In fact, Obama says that while he will uphold traditional Democratic goals such as expanding opportunity and protecting the environment, he believes that the party must be "more agnostic in terms of the tools to achieve them."

All of this echoes the last Democratic president, who also sought to build bridges by fusing new thinking with old values. Obama readily acknowledges that Bill Clinton in many respects pointed the party in the direction he wants it to follow. "He made some progress ... on the policy side," Obama allows. But he believes that the Clintonian version of consensus focuses too much on finding a poll-driven midpoint between the parties, rather than uniting Americans around fundamentally new approaches. And he argues that the Clintons incite such intense emotions that Hillary Clinton could not deliver on reconciliation even if she intends to pursue it.

Could Obama, as he claims, unite the country more effectively than Hillary Clinton?  Obama's great asset as a political peacemaker -- touted in Andrew Sullivan's impassioned new Atlantic essay -- is that he hasn't been scarred by decades of cultural and political conflict. Hillary Clinton's great strength is her scars: She's survived enough combat to have learned something about avoiding it, as she demonstrated by shrewdly designing her new health care plan to court the small-business and insurance lobbies that sank her 1993 proposal.

With Hillary Clinton, there's another issue. While on an intellectual level she recognizes the value of coalition-building, her gut instinct is to respond to a punch with a punch. She could prove too much a warrior to forge a truce in Washington. Obama, a silky mediator more respected than feared, faces the opposite question: In an age of extreme partisanship, is he tough enough to make peace?