HOW could this happen? How could the Democrats assemble two breakthrough contenders with luminous, inspiring resumes for an election in which they were prohibitive favorites and by March be on the verge of bungling it so badly that at least five important political groups could be alienated from the Democrats for a generation? Nice job.
Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are locked in one of the most gripping nomination struggles ever - this one is better than John F. Kennedy against Hubert H. Humphrey in 1960, better than Ronald Reagan versus Gerald R. Ford in 1976.
The first serious black contender for a major-party nomination against the first serious female contender for a major-party nomination and no one is consigning them to oblivion because, as has been clear for more than a third of a century, the Democrats increasingly have become a party of blacks and women. What a moment.
And now, to spoil it all, the fight is so close, so emotional, so raw, that the very beauty of the thing could be destroyed as the two camps move toward the Pennsylvania primary next month and then to a death struggle afterward. No one knows how it is going to get sorted out.
A month ago, on Feb. 13, Mark Penn, the chief strategist for the Clinton campaign, wrote a memo saying that the nomination would be decided by delegate count, not by momentum. "Again and again," he wrote, "this race has shown that it is voters and delegates who matter, not the pundits or perceived 'momentum.'•" That was February. You don't hear the Clintonistas arguing that in March.
That's how much the race has changed. And it keeps changing. The Penn memo isn't evidence of the perfidy of the Clinton campaign. It's merely evidence that in this campaign, the two sides are going to keep fighting, changing their arguments, doing anything they can to come out on top by Labor Day.
Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, isn't known for contemplative thinking, but he captured the difficulty the Democrats face when he said the other day that the goal was to find a solution that would allow the losing campaign to feel it had been treated fairly. Good phrase. Good luck with that.
Because whatever happens, someone is going to be really, really upset, and every time that happens the party is affected, and punished, long beyond Election Day.
Remember, for example, how the Democrats alienated party regulars when they nominated George McGovern at a 1972 convention stocked with wildly disproportionate numbers of delegates carrying graduate degrees, or how the Republicans expelled their liberals and moderates at the Barry Goldwater convention in 1964?
Here are the five groups at risk as the Democrats hurtle toward their rendezvous with destiny, or with disaster, or at least with decision:
Female voters. They have turned out in droves, with great enthusiasm, mostly for Mrs. Clinton. Many of them see the Clinton campaign as a vehicle for the realization of a dream they never dared have. If men in the cyberspace equivalent of a smoke-filled room figure out a way to deliver the nomination to another man, the wounds will not heal swiftly, if at all.
Black voters. Reread the last paragraph, substitute the words "Mr. Obama" and "whites," leave the rest alone, and you'll get the idea. Blacks have been the most reliably Democratic voting group in the party coalition for more than a generation. Republicans since 1988 have been talking about a way to lure blacks back into the party of Abraham Lincoln. The Democratic Party without black voters is a party without prospects for victory.
Young voters. By now you know the drill; see the first two items. Young people have been inspired out of their political torpor. If their candidate (in most cases Mr. Obama, in some cases Mrs. Clinton) is seen as having been robbed of a prize he or she earned, the alienation of this generation could last for a generation. That is bad for the Democrats, and it is worse for the country.
Michigan. Once the great auto state, still a great labor state, now a classic Rust-Belt state, Michigan has voted Democratic in the last four elections. No calculus of Democratic general-election strategies leaves out Michigan and its 17 electoral votes. Somehow the party is going to have to figure out how to seat Michigan's delegates at the Denver convention after a rogue primary in which Mr. Obama's name did not even appear on the ballot.
Florida. This state settled the 2000 election, although everything about the episode was unsettling and still is. Now Florida's delegates are in the same position as Michigan's, and the Democrats are struggling over how to proceed. What to do? A do-over primary? A mail ballot? And who will pay for whatever it is? Unresolved questions, all. But both parties covet Florida, and the Democrats can't afford to let the Republicans pluck it as a freebie. There's no easy solution here, though it is easy to say that the status quo cannot continue.
The Democrats face these five problems, plus one more. As a party out of power, it may be powerless to come to a swift and crisp resolution. This fight is designed to select a party leader. But the whole point is that the nomination fight is unresolved, so there is no leader, no mediating or higher authority, to help resolve it.
No politico or outside observer thought the country could dare plunge into a position in 2000 where it could have no president-elect five weeks after Election Day. Now no politico nor outside observer thinks the Democrats could dare plunge into a convention without a presumptive nominee. If they are wrong again, the Democratic Party could be reshaped for decades.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: email@example.com