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Division point?

Jeff Merkley

Jeff Merkley

Steve Novick

Steve Novick

The back to back talks by Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley and Portland activist Steve Novick, both running for the U.S. Senate, at this week’s labor conference at Seaside, may have shown off the coming state of the Oregon Democratic Party in microcosm. They certainly ought to have given the party’s leaders something to think about.

Merkley and Novick were cordial and focused their fire on Republican Gordon Smith; and their line of argument against him, and their descriptions of their own philosophies of governing, were similar in content. Theirs was not a “left vs. moderate” sort of thing: Wherever they are on such a scale, they’re not far apart ideologically.

But there was a difference, and it wasn’t subtle.

Merkley made only one quick, glancing reference to Novick, simply acknowleding their joint appearances, nothing substantive. (His speaking, by the ways, seems to have gained in smoothness and strength since last we saw him.) He seemed to take little notice of him.

Novick, while focused on Smith (coupled, of course, with the Bush Administration) and his own views, did carve out a couple of minutes to discuss Merkley, planting one substantial barb along the way.

He softened it with this opening: “Here I have to tell you that I am the only Democrat in the race that can beat Gordon Smith, for two reasons. Gordon Smith is a highly talented traditional politician. You’re not going to beat him with anything remotely traditional. You’re going to have to beat him with something a little different. I’m little, and I’m different.” That drew laughs, of course, but effectively set up his main point: Merkley’s vote in 2003 for a state legislative resolution supporting the Iraq war, President Bush and the troops.

That vote, he suggested, fatally undercuts any effort by Merkley to attack Smith, whose stance on Iraq changed dramatically last December, on the war. (“So, Speaker Merkley, you changed you mind on the war? So did I . . . Oh, you only meant in that vote to support the troops – well, that was my intent too . . . Or does it mean you’ll vote for something you don’t believe in? . . .”)

The point is powerful, and Novick implanted it effectively. It has some power because it can resonate with all those Democrats furious at a Democratic Congress which has not made much change in Iraq policy. Would Merkley, for all his talk against the war, join in that crowd?

This isn’t really a left-center debate, but more an insider-outsider think: Note that Novick set up his argument with the implicit description of Merkley as a “traditional” politician. That has some resonance, too: Just to look (or for that matter, to hear) the two of them is to reinforce the point.

All of which might be a semi-significant campaign tactic, except for another stray comment, not about Merkley, that Novick made for the taping of last Sunday’s Outlook Portland television program.

There (after some of these same points about Merkley came up), host Nick Fish asked Novick about several other upcoming races, including one other with competing Democrats: Attorney General, sought by state Representative Greg Macpherson of Lake Oswego and law professor John Kroger, a former federal prosecutor. Macpherson has emerged as, more or less, the “establishment” choice – like Merkley, endorsed by Governor Ted Kulongoski and other top names – and Kroger, less known, as sort of an outsider choice, and in interviews seems to be emerging as a boat-rocker and activist, moreso evidently than Macpherson.

Novick might have been expected to stay out of another primary, but he didn’t, endorsing Kroger. Part of it comes from their shared background as Department of Justice attorneys, and his description of Kroger’s record in Enron, Mafia and other cases. Electing such as activist attorney, he suggested, “will help in bringing good people to the [state] Department of Justice, and give those people who are already there a little extra spring in their step.” A question, in other words, of degree of activism and assertiveness.

Some of that distinction of style and attitude seems to be a good bit of what separates some of the Democrats these days (and not just in Oregon). In the months rolling out to the primaries and beyond, we’ll be watching to see whether this is a widening or narrowing divide.

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