In primary election campaigns, the fighting is often vicious because the differences are so small.
That helps to explain why, despite so many more urgent foreign and domestic issues on the table in the Democratic presidential primaries, so much attention has been riveted lately on exciting distractions.
Did Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois oppose the war in Iraq from the very beginning? He proudly did.
Did Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York insult the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.? She proudly did not.
Yet former President Bill Clinton suddenly found his honorary "first black president" status, famously conferred on him with tongue in cheek by author Toni Morrison, in jeopardy after he ridiculed Obama's version of his early Iraq war opposition as a "fairy tale."
And his wife has come under fire from some black leaders for saying in a televised interview: "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. … It took a president to get it done."
Actually, if anyone should feel offended by that remark, it is Republicans. Sen. Clinton could have showed a little love for Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who rounded up enough Republican votes to offset strong opposition from Johnson's fellow southern Democrats.
But facts often are not as important as feelings in neck-and-neck political races. The offense matters more than actual fault in the racial "gotcha" game. Political correctness? Sure. The important thing to remember about political correctness is that politicians invented it. As an icon of black aspirations poses a serious challenge to an icon of women's aspirations, liberal PC has come back to bite liberals.
That became apparent when South Carolina's most powerful and influential black politician, U. S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn, said he was so "bothered" by the Clintons' remarks that he was reconsidering his earlier decision to avoid endorsing any candidate before the state's Democratic primary on Saturday, Jan. 26.
That's serious. Clyburn's coveted endorsement carries a lot of weight in South Carolina, where blacks make up about half of the votes in the South's first Democratic primary. Polls showed Clinton falling behind Obama in South Carolina and among black voters nationally. For example, he beats her by almost two-to-one in a new ABC News-Washington Post poll of black voters nationwide. Most threatening to the Clintons is the notion that Clyburn, amid a rising tide of black support for Obama, could be reaching for an excuse to endorse Obama, or at least to distance himself from the Clintons.
How quickly times change. Only a month earlier Clinton was so far ahead of Obama among African Americans that some people still were asking whether Obama was "black enough" for black voters. Even before Obama won the caucuses in overwhelmingly white Iowa, black loyalty to the honorary "first black president" was turning toward the increasingly tangible possibility of a real one.
But as more voters saw Obama as a candidate worth fighting for, others saw him as increasingly worth fighting against.
To their credit, Obama, Clinton and their fellow front-runner former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, mostly have complimented each other and called for an end to the recent racially tinged fuss. But some of their supporters carry on the sniping, firing out in ways that sometimes ricochet back to embarrass the very candidates whom they support.
For example, Gloria Steinem, another Clinton supporter, ironically played the guilt card in a New York Times essay on the day of the New Hampshire primary. She declared that a black woman who had Obama's stellar qualifications and African-sounding name would not have a prayer of gaining frontrunner status. You know things are getting vicious on the left when a pioneer of modern feminism stigmatizes Obama as someone who benefited unfairly from gender preferences. Can't we all get along?
The fighting is vicious because Obama and Clinton are so politically alike. Democratic voters who are still undecided after the bazillions of speeches and debates that have been held so far face an embarrassment of riches. In Clinton, Obama and Edwards, they have three attractive choices who speak the right Democrat-speak on the issues and show roughly same amount of pluses and minuses in terms of electability.
Republicans, by contrast, struggle to regain unity among their various factions. So far, GOP voters have had to choose between an array of candidates who have not energized more than a narrow segment of their party's base. Eventually, both parties will have to unify around a nominee. The best news for Republican unity then may well be found in the disunity brewing among Democrats now.