Steve Duin, writing in the Oregonian yesterday, touched on a thought about this year's Democratic races that I've been playing with for a while. Consider these three races: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the presidential nomination, Greg Macpherson and John Kroger for attorney general, and Jeff Merkley and Steve Novick for the senate. In each case the political establishment heavily favored the first candidate. In each case the public viewed the second candidate as talented, interesting, but ultimately not actually electable.
What a difference six months makes. Senator Obama narrowly leads Senator Clinton in pledged delegates, and they have essentially tied in the popular vote so far. Representative Macpherson still leads Professor Kroger, but the final vote will be close. And Representative Merkley has fallen behind not only Mr. Novick, but (according to a KATU poll released last week) behind Candy Neville, a political unknown running as an anti-war activist.
Mr. Duin looked at these three races, and at the race between Kate Brown and Vicki Walker for secretary of state, and saw a pattern: the party is sending two messages. The first group of candidates represents the establishment, and of them Mr. Duin trenchantly says, "They are running on experience, believing most voters mistake it for competence or prefer it to creativity."
I like that line so much that I'm going to quote it again, in color.
"They are running on experience, believing most voters mistake it for competence or prefer it to creativity." -- Steve Duin
The second group of candidates represents impatience with business as usual.
I go beyond Mr. Duin. I believe that the second group of candidates (Obama, Novick, Kroger, and Walker) are doing well because their opponents are overselling their message. Until she sent her husband to the bench for a few weeks, Senator Clinton was running on the strength of President Clinton's administration, which started 16 years ago. (In terms of time warp, that's the same as if President Clinton had run in 1992 on the accomplishments of the Carter administration.) Because her time in the White House is what she relies on for most of her experience in government, Senator Clinton can't run as the candidate of change, and every time we see President Clinton campaigning for her we are pulled backward in time, rather than pushed forward.
I see a second phenomenon here, one that Mr. Duin didn't mention. The incumbent president has convincingly demonstrated the perils of a large republic adopting dynastic succession to the point that the voters are impelled to vote against any candidate who looks like -- and especially who campaigns as -- an heir apparent, whether by family relationship (Senator Clinton, Representative Macpherson) or by long service in elected office (Senator Brown, Representative Merkley). Put another way, a large part of the Democratic electorate isn't out to reward candidates for what they've done in the past, but to pick people who have a chance of doing something differently in the future.