WASHINGTON -- Things are not turning out the way Democrats had hoped last November when they took control of Congress, promising to change the way things are done in Washington.
Their front-runners for the presidential nomination have been bickering with one another, raising questions about whether Democrats are ready to govern again. House Democrats are so divided over a John Murtha/Nancy Pelosi bill to micromanage our troops in Iraq that it has been shelved for lack of Democratic support. And the Senate under Majority Leader Harry Reid seems unable to produce a working consensus on anything.
Nowhere is the Democrats' divisiveness more striking than among their top presidential contenders: Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Their bitter public spat, which dominated the party's backroom buzz last week, dismayed grassroots Democrats and many independent observers who said such fierce infighting would hurt their party if it continues.
"At a time when they need to maintain the moral high ground, they're engaging in bullying and street-fighter tactics and they don't need that in February 2007. That should be reserved, once the nominee is secure, against the other side," said pollster John Zogby.
"At this stage, anything that threatens party unity or alienates Democrats or annoys swing voters can hurt. So in the case of Hillary, anything that reminds swing voters of the darker side of the Clintons hurts. Anything that suggests Obama is not Clean Gene, meaning I'm not going to run on the 'audacity of hope' but I'm going to kick you if you kick me, can hurt," Zogby said.
Ohio Democratic chairman Chris Redfern seemed similarly displeased by the spectacle of Clinton and Obama feuding this early in their party's campaign to take back the White House.
"The Democrats have momentum going their way, an unpopular president waging a misguided war, and now they're pointing fingers at each other," Redfern told me.
His advice to the front-runners: "They need to clean it up, make nice with each other and get to work."
Also, there was this pointed advice from Democratic media strategist Bud Jackson: "The Democrats in general, particularly party activists and leaders, do not want to see a knife fight between these two that results in blood all over the Democrats. We want a strong nominee coming out of this primary process, not one that is beaten and bloodied."
Media mogul David Geffen, a former Bill Clinton moneyman who is now supporting Obama, started the brawl. In an interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Geffen said Hillary Clinton was an "incredibly polarizing figure" who is unelectable.
And, alluding to her husband's infidelity, and by implication the Monica Lewinsky scandal that led to his impeachment, Geffen suggested he had not changed his habits. "I don't think anybody believes that in the last six years, all of a sudden Bill Clinton has become a different person," he told Dowd. The Clinton campaign lashed out at Obama. It blamed him for the attack, demanded he apologize for the remarks and return the money Geffen had contributed to his presidential bid.
Obama's campaign struck back, reminding Clinton that Geffen was a former Clinton ally who had helped raise millions for their campaigns. When the smoke cleared, Hillary Clinton had suffered the most damage. The New York Times said in a front-page story that her efforts to blame Obama were "widely viewed among Democrats as carrying some cost to Mrs. Clinton." The intensity of her political attack was "a sharp reminder of Clinton family history that has led some Democrats to believe Mrs. Clinton cannot win a general election," the Times said.
In the end, the episode was seen by some as "a minor speed bump" on the road to next January's primaries, but it served to remind voters of the Democrats' propensity to squabble among each other.
It was the kind of politics-as-usual feuding that Obama had lectured his party about at last month's Democratic National Committee meeting, where he warned Democrats to beware of those who still think that "politics is a game, a blood sport" in which the object is to destroy your opponent.
If the skirmish resulted in anything, it sharpened the contrast between the old and the new politics. Clinton was the old politics: Hit 'em hard; hit 'em early. Obama was seen as the new politics, defending himself from an unfair attack, to be sure, but seeing politics as a higher calling, not a blood sport "to dig for skeletons" in a rival's past, as he said last month.
Maybe that's why respected Democrats like former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, still troubled by the Clintons' scandals, and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine have endorsed Obama.
Last month, Clinton hit back hard but maybe too hard this time for a party looking for a new kind of politics and a fresh face to lead it.