The debate over Hillary Clinton illuminates a basic problem confronting the Democratic Party. There's a deep split between activists and insiders, between the grassroots/netroots and the Washington establishment. It's a difference of opinion on many issues: Iraq, the global marketplace, and how to deal with global climate change, among other subject. An ideological gap that spills over to social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and gun control. Fundamentally, it's about whether the Party should paint itself deep blue or shades of purple.
Most Democratic loyalists feel that it would be a good idea to have a woman president, in the abstract. They just aren't convinced that Hillary's the one. At the moment they're split between more than a dozen possible alternatives to Senator Clinton. There are several different ways to evaluate these contenders. A pragmatic approach is to group them by their ability to raise money. This rule-of-thumb says that to be considered a serious contender one must have $10 million on hand in January 2007 and roughly $40 million a year later.
At the moment there are four candidates who appear to be able to raise the funds needed to compete with Hillary Clinton: Evan Bayh, the former governor and current Senator from Indiana, John Edwards, the former North Carolina Senator and 2004 Vice-Presidential candidate, John Kerry, the junior Senator from Massachusetts and 2004 Presidential candidate, and Mark Warner, the former Virginia Governor.
In Democratic politics, as in much of American life, it's money that matters. So it looks like Dems will choose between Bayh, Clinton, Edwards, Kerry, and Warner. There are several ways to compare them. One would be their electability. Many Democrats believe that neither Clinton nor Kerry is electable in 2008; that neither could beat John McCain, for example. Hiding behind this is the belief that to win the presidency, Democrats have to reach beyond blue states and capture traditionally red states like Montana. Many rank-and-file Dems don't think that Clinton or Kerry can do this. Many believe that Bayh, Edwards, and Warner can.
Pundits claim that Clinton and Kerry lack electability because they are too "liberal." But they aren't liberals; they are centrist Democrats, as are Bayh and Warner. Edwards is the most liberal of the probable candidates (and Feingold is the most liberal of those considering a run.)
Another basis for comparison would be Iraq. Edwards and Kerry have taken a stand for withdrawal. Bayh wants a plan. And Clinton and Warner want "to win." Their lack of a clear stance on Iraq would hurt Clinton and Warner with many segments of the Party, particularly the netroots. The deep distrust of Hillary stems more from her seeming inability to take a stand on tough issues than it does from her gender.
A critical dimension should be leadership. When George Bush leaves office, America will be in a mess: losing the war on terror, staggering under a mountain of debt, and without a plan for critical challenges such as global climate change. To win, the Democratic candidate must first bring together the multiple personalities of the Party and elicit support from "purple" voters""independents. But to mount an effective response to the challenges confronting America, a Democratic President would have to reunite a deeply divided America, reach across culture and class to build a new consensus.
Which of these five candidates can provide the leadership that the US needs to deal with our common problems? It's too soon to tell. One thing for sure, money can buy a lot of things, but not love or leadership.