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by Jeff Fecke | July 14, 2009 • It’s easy to forget, a year later, just how difficult 2008 was on Democrats. From mid-March to mid-June, the party was fractured almost exactly down the middle between boosters of Hillary Clinton and devotees of Barack Obama. The snarling and back-biting was intense, vicious, mean-spirited, and brutal. Along the way, all sorts of dirt was dug up and flung with real intent to destroy. Anyone looking at the Democrats in late-May saw a party that was coming apart at the seams.

Jeff Fecke is a freelance writer who lives in Eagan, Minnesota.In addition to his own blog, Blog of the Moderate Left, he also contributes to Alas, a Blog, Minnesota Campaign Report, and AlterNet. Fecke has appeared as a guest on the “Today” show, the Alan Colmes radio show, and the Mark Heaney Show. Fecke is divorced, and the father of one really terrific daughter. His debut novel, The Valkyrie’s Tale, is now available.

But a funny thing happened on the way to disaster. Both candidates — Clinton and Obama — became better candidates for the experience of the battle. Damaging information about Obama — the Wright kerfuffle chief among it — came up and was disposed of. Obama was forced to defend himself from withering attacks, and so was Clinton. Whichever candidate survived the marathon was in far better shape to take on John McCain, and when the dust settled, Barack Obama handled the Republican easily, cruising to victory in November.

Obama did this not in spite of the bruising primary battle, but because of a bruising primary battle.

Imagine, if you will, that Hillary Clinton had taken everyone’s advice and dropped out after Texas and Ohio. There’s no Wright controversy, no rumors of the “whitey” tape, no Hillary Clinton pressuring Obama to stay on his toes, to bring his top game. Just a bunch of Democrats sitting around, singing “Kumbaya.”

Until September, when John McCain would have selected a boring governor like Tim Pawlenty to be his running mate, since there was no reason to think that picking a woman would pull in disaffected Clinton supporters. Until October, when the Wright tapes dropped, right into the middle of the election cycle. Until November, when Obama may well have lost, because he had not yet been tested by the Clinton machine, not yet been seasoned by the tremendous battle Hillary Clinton brought to him.

Obama may well have won anyhow; he is a man of considerable political talent, and given the state of the country, he might well have still fended off McCain. But the race would have been closer. And Clinton supporters would have spent the election wondering what would have happened if Hillary had stayed in and fought, and whether Obama might have folded in the onslaught. And that doesn’t even get into all the other things that wouldn’t have happened, especially the massive influx of energy and money into the Democratic Party, energy and money that has most certainly translated into the 60 seats Democrats hold in the Senate; if not for the massive switch of moderates from the Republican to Democratic side, Arlen Specter would have stayed on the right side of the aisle. And you can’t tell me the primary boost wasn’t good for at least 313 votes for Al Franken.

Contested nomination processes are a good thing. Even in Minnesota, where the primary elections are held a good three months later than they should be. The more we look over our candidates, test them, force them to prove themselves, the better they will do against the best the Republicans can offer.

That’s one of the main reason why I’ve been so disheartened to see so many supporters of Matt Entenza shouting at me and others to shut up, sit down, and accept that Entenza is the nominee, despite the fact that the primary election isn’t for another fourteen months, and that at there are two major potential candidates — the Mayor of Minneapolis and the Mayor of St. Paul — who will not be able to announce their intentions about the governor’s seat until December at the earliest.

I may be totally wrong about Matt Entenza, though the frenzied reaction to my post, including overt threats sent to people who had the temerity to support me, makes me think that if anything I’ve been too soft on him. But if I’m wrong, the only way we’re going to find out is for Entenza to steer boldly into the barrage of criticism and prove his critics wrong.

I won’t be supporting Entenza regardless of how things turn out, so I guess that makes me a PUMA in this parallel to 2008. But most of the DFLers expressing concerns about Entenza are not so implacable as I am. Most of them will be happy to support him if he can overcome the sense that he’s crooked, beholden to special interests, mean-spirited, and self-absorbed. But he’s going to actually have to overcome that — just as John Marty will have to overcome the taint of 1994, just as Steve Kelley will have to overcome the three-time loser vibe, just as Mark Dayton will have to overcome the sense that he’s a bit odd, just as Susan Gaertner will have to demonstrate her DFL bona fides, just as Tom Bakk will have to prove he can play in the metro, just as Rybak and/or Coleman will have to prove they can play outstate, just as Anderson Kelliher and Thissen and Rukavina will have to prove that they haven’t been damaged by last session’s meltdown. All of the DFL candidates have causes for concern, and all of them (yes, even Entenza) have points in their favor.

But we can only find out who has the best balance of points to demerits if we study the candidates closely, if we ask hard questions and demand direct answers, if we are willing to fight as hard as Clinton and Obama supporters fought in 2008. That shouldn’t be ancient history to Democrats. It should be a lesson that we learn, and embrace. Because if we don’t, we’ll end up yet again with a mediocre, partially-vetted candidate with a huge, fatal flaw. It’s happened every year since 1990. I don’t want to wait until 2014 to get it right. I’d like my daughter to have a Democrat as governor sometime before she’s 12. After all, I haven’t known one since I was 16.

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