The Democratic Party goes into the 2008 election with the most favorable electoral environment in decades. But as Democrats work to piece together a durable majority coalition, they face three closely interrelated challenges.
First, with the odds favoring the nomination of either a black or a woman, the Democratic Party will likely be pushed to the cutting edge of the cultural and racial issues that have dominated politics for the past four decades.
For Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the tasks during the primary and general elections will be very different, if not antithetical. Democratic primaries are heavily focused on competition for identity and ideological group support - anti-war, blacks, abortion rights, gays, the liberal netroots and labor.
In contrast, much of the battle in the general election is for voters who explicitly dislike identity politics. There is no doubt that Republican officials are now planning ways to try to exploit the race or gender of the Democratic nominee, and will make full use of whatever traps the nominee may be lured into during the primaries.
Second, as the candidates compete with each other for the nomination, they face the delicate job of preventing the contest from intensifying conflicts between the bread and butter, heavily black and Hispanic, disproportionately poor wing of the party (a third or more of Democratic voters) and the increasingly assertive, well-educated and largely white, ideologically liberal faction (another third).
Finally, any candidate seeking to not only win the nomination, but the general election, cannot afford to alienate the middle class, largely white, moderate voters who in the 2006 mid-terms cast Democratic ballots for the first time in years - spurred by the war in Iraq -- providing the margin of victory in many House and Senate races.
Reconciling the divergent needs of economically-downscale voters, culturally liberal upscale voters, and essential swing- and/or centrist voters will not be easy.
These difficulties pale in comparison, however, to those facing the Republican Party and its candidates for the nomination.
In a reversal of past patterns, the conflicts in this cycle between the Republican primary electorate, on the one hand, and general election voters, on the other, are far more severe than on the Democratic side of the aisle. The continuing support among Republican voters for both President Bush and his policies in Iraq has pushed all the leading GOP candidates well outside mainstream views on ending the war, the issue most likely to dominate 2008.
The potential for conflict between Republican Party orthodoxy and more moderate general election voters was graphically displayed at a Columbia, South Carolina Republican Party debate on May 15, when the audience erupted in cheers as Rudy Giuliani endorsed the use of torture.
But Democrats would be crazy not to worry about the kind of alienating conflicts that can emerge on their side. When control of the White House is at stake, the GOP has historically demonstrated far more skill in the use of wedge issues to split the opposition than have Democrats.
The potential for schism is always present within the Democratic coalition, and a number of flare ups have already emerged.
Among the more noticeable intra-party disputes this year was an April clash between the pro-Democratic, overwhelmingly white netroots and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute over a proposed Caucus-sponsored television debate on Fox News.
For the netroots, Fox's conservative tile makes it an unacceptable venue for the debate (a view ultimately shared by all the major Democratic candidates this year). For members of the black caucus, however, Fox had earned their loyalty in 2003 when the caucus asked all the cable news networks to air a September 9, black caucus-sponsored presidential debate in Baltimore, and the only network to agree at that time was Fox.
Another battle between black and white Democratic officials and officeholders emerged this year in Mississippi, a battle with the potential to inflict significant damage on the party.
In Mississippi, an insurgent group of African-American Democrats won a June 8 federal court ruling requiring the state to replace the existing non-partisan voter registration system with voter registration by party, thereby eliminating open or "cross-over" primary voting. The widespread expectation is that many whites who have voted in local Democratic primaries will opt to register as Republicans if forced to choose, turning the Democratic primary electorate in Mississippi - and perhaps other Southern states -- into a decisively black constituency.
Ike Brown, a member of the Mississippi Democratic Party executive board and the leader of the drive to require partisan registration, declared in a letter to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that the court ruling will force many current elected Democrats out of the party: "'Blue Dogs' like [Mississippi Secretary of State] Eric Clark and [Attorney General] Jim Hood, [Jackson] Sheriff Malcolm McMillin, [Hinds County Circuit Court Clerk] Barbara Dunn, [State Senate Appropriations Committee chair] Jack Gordon, etc., have won their last Democratic nomination." Brown's intent is to force mostly white centrist elected Democrats out of the party in order to increase the leverage of African Americans.
Democratic presidential competitors will, then, have to negotiate their way through two political minefields. The first requires placating competing core Democratic constituencies, each demanding not only loyalty but a substantial piece of the pie. The longer term challenge is to build a Democratic majority coalition that can prevail once the war in Iraq no longer dominates the agenda, and intraparty resource competition returns in full potentially-divisive force.