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Democratic smackdown a gift to GOP

The Democrats may finally be stepping away from their circular firing squad. It took them long enough.

Only now is the party starting to rally around Sen. Barack Obama. No one knows how long it will take to move beyond the fratricidal conflict that was made unnecessarily bitter by the Clintons.

The cry of “McCain in '08!” at the Democratic rules committee meeting over the weekend came from a supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton.

It reminded me of Bill Clinton's comment that “it would be a great thing if we had an election year where you had two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interest of this country.”

He was talking about Hillary Clinton and John McCain. The former president's comment played right into the effort by opponents of Obama to portray the senator as some kind of alien figure, less than patriotic, not fully American, too strange by half to be handed the reins of government.

Obama's effort to counter that line of attack has been undermined by the incredible shrieking pastors from the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, a place that might be good for the soul but is potentially ruinous for a presidential aspirant.

First came the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. with his videotaped, over-the-top sermons. That controversy was a body blow to the Obama campaign, and it hasn't fully recovered.

Then we had the astounding video of the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest who put on a grotesque performance that could hardly have been more racially offensive toward white people or more personally offensive toward Clinton.

His rant, cheered by the audience, was one of the worst I've seen in many years. Obama announced on Saturday that he had quit the church.

Party at war with itself

This was supposed to have been the Democrats' year. But instead of marching to victory, the party has been at war with itself in some of the ugliest ways imaginable. There was a time, not that long ago, when Democratic voters were crowing about how happy they were with all (or almost all) of the potential nominees.

But Clinton and Obama partisans spent months fighting bitterly on the toxic terrain of misogyny, racism and religion. It can only make you wonder about Democratic claims of moral superiority when it comes to tolerance.

This should have been the year when the Democrats just hammered the Republicans over the economy, the war, energy policy, health care, appointments to the Supreme Court, the failure to rebuild New Orleans, and so on. The list of important issues on which the Republicans are vulnerable is endless.

Instead of running for cover, the GOP is growing ever more confident that it will be tossing inaugural balls for John and Cindy McCain come January.

There is no end of blame to be apportioned among the Democrats. The Clintons have behaved execrably. But weak-willed party leaders showed neither the courage nor the inclination to stop them from fracturing the party along gender and ethnic lines.

Can damage be repaired?

Can the Democrats still get their act together?

Only if they hurry. The party will have to exhibit extraordinary unity, coming together quickly to heal the wounds of this long and bitter primary. Obama will have to develop (again, quickly) an exceptionally compelling economic program while trying to strengthen his appeal across ethnic and class lines.

The Democrats have done far more damage to themselves than the GOP could ever have inflicted.