Why Is 2008’s Winning Party Playing It So Safe?

The Democratic primary field seems to operate under a hidden dictum of reverse momentum, not unlike some new strain of antimatter: Anytime the battle for early advantage in the race tightens, the actual content of the struggle goes slack. The process seemed to veer dangerously toward a final decomposing event horizon with the recent report from Robert Novak that Hillary Clinton’s campaign operatives were shoveling rumors of a scandal involving Barack Obama among the D.C. press corps.

The report appeared to be unadulterated horseshit, ultimately disavowed by the Hillary team. But not before it triggered a content-free round of snipes and counterinsinuations from the Obama and Clinton campaigns, each eager to display their campaigning prowess. Mr. Obama indignantly decried the “Swift Boat” tactics of the alleged smear; Clinton operatives snidely retorted that the Illinois senator lacked the “experience” necessary to shut down a systematic attack operation.

The authors of the Federalist Papers didn’t include the tireless shilling of rapid-response narratives of the campaign itself among the ideal leadership qualifications for the national executive. But all the nonsignifying sound and fury over the nonscandal underlines one theme of this primary cycle: the extreme caution of Democratic campaigning, which has turned the Democratic party into a virtual assembly line of conservative political impulses. Of course, they remain to the left of the G.O.P. But for several election cycles now, they have campaigned out of defensive crouches, even when ostensibly on the attack—a trend that seems to be taking earlier and deeper root, paradoxically, in an election season where the party looks to possess every tactical advantage over the once-powerful G.O.P.

The party’s “been moving in that direction for some time,” says Marc Landy, a Boston College political scientist and co-author of the study Presidential Greatness with Sidney M. Milkis. “I think you see it in 1996, when [Bill] Clinton framed the campaign around protecting the entitlements. Whatever the question put to him, his answer was always, ‘I will not touch Medicare.’ Then in 2000, you have Gore and the lockbox. And in ’04, the Kerry campaign wasn’t really about anything, but it continued in the same vein—the idea that the Democrats will protect against conservative raids on entitlements.

“I find it extremely hard to say what they’re for,” Mr. Landy said. “I think if you really pressed it, they are affirming that the thing a liberal Democrat believes is that we can all express ourselves. We’re not all really going to make pornography—some of us will be ballet dancers, some are poets and what have you.” In this minimalist view of a liberal good society, “obviously the greatest evil is censorship,” he says. “Beyond that, in foreign policy, say, the goal is again defensive: if we can keep people safe in the sense that they’re not killed overseas. I think that for a certain number of liberals, all that really matters is to be secure.” This outlook, he suggests, reflects the shifting socioeconomic profile of the party’s power brokers: “Our traditional view of the Democratic party is that it’s still something formed around a set of issues and organizations, from the labor movement, say. But that represents a deeply declining part of the workforce. Now the party is the lawyer’s party—and the party of Hollywood and high-tech millionaires.”

Indeed, all three of the candidates in the Iowa top tier—Ms. Clinton, Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards—are attorneys, and all are plugged into entertainment and tech donor networks. But that’s largely the party’s institutional leadership profile. Some Democratic observers see a growing split between those cautious strategists and base voters, who may opt for roads less traveled, scripts less mercilessly flogged, once victory seems inevitable.

“If you can have buyer’s remorse before you’ve bought something, that’s going to set in as we move in toward the last six weeks toward the caucus,” says Terry Michael, the former Democratic National Committee spokesman who now heads the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism. Citing polls that show Mr. Obama opening a slight lead over Hillary among self-described likely caucus voters, Mr. Michael theorizes that they “show a ceiling for the extremely well-known product of Hillary Clinton, and probably a floor for Obama.”

The dynamic, he continues, is something of a reverse image of the conditions that moved Mr. Kerry to the front of the Iowa pack in 2004: “Then you had the D.C. establishment not wanting the inevitable nominee—Dean—and deciding, ‘All right, we want someone who’s one of us.’ In this case they have much of the Washington establishment in the Hillary inevitability camp. But that’s what I mean by buyers’ remorse—the revolt against the conventional wisdom, within both the party and the press establishment.”

But for either Mr. Obama or Mr. Edwards to capitalize on that trend, they have to show less caution. “There’s no need to play it safe at this point,” Mr. Michael said. “If Obama finds his voice on the war, I think people are going to stop and ask, ‘Do we really want four more years of the Bush-Clinton clans, who have dominated our politics for the last 28 years?’”

The Edwards camp, at least, is pushing those kinds of messages hard.

“There’s no question that in American politics, in both parties but especially ours in recent years, there’s been a premium placed on caution and stability on the boat,” says one adviser to the campaign. “They don’t want anyone making waves. That’s frankly the reason that you see so much Washington and media cynicism with regard to Edwards, and why they’re not picking up more differences.

“All the candidates now are saying they’re for change; the question is how do they approach bringing about the change?”

Which is, in part, why the Edwards team is continuing to hammer at the image of the front-runner as a “corporate Democrat” and other themes in the old economic populist mode of Democratic campaigns past. “You know, if you keep making the critiques, the critiques will stick,” the adviser says. “Here’s how you know Hillary’s panicking about Iowa—she went on the air with this trust ad, with a paid ad that is countering an attack that no one’s made.” Why Is 2008’s Winning Party Playing It So Safe?