ImageDemocrats are heading for a strategic crackup of historic - some might say "hysteric" - proportions. I speak here of the political strategy of building a political party - indeed, an entire political culture - on an amalgam of aggrieved special interest groups. The strategy has worked fairly well since Franklin Roosevelt formulated it in 1932. Nineteenth century Democrats were the party of slavery, secession and segregation, but FDR's Party was built on a broader foundation of farmers, poor people, southern whites, labor unions, academic malcontents, teachers, Jews, theologically liberal Christians, seniors, and government workers.

After 1960, the Party embraced blacks and other racial minorities, but this drove southern whites to the Republican Party. Despite that realignment, the near-monolithic support of "people of color" kept the Democratic Party competitive at the local and national level - excepting the presidency, which Democrats have held for only 12 of the last 40 years.

Women became a dependable demographic group for Democrats - not monolithically, but a strong majority among single and older women. Catholics were originally part of the Democratic foundation, but the Party's alignment with abortion rights caused their post-1973 defection. White men - increasingly disrespected and disregarded by Democrats - gravitated to the GOP in nearly the same numbers as women came to the Democratic Party.

Despite its diverse constituencies, the "Big Tent" operated with the implicit understanding that the Party's presidential ticket would still be headed by white men who could - it was thought - reach across the center to attract enough white men for victory. Bill Clinton seemed to vindicate the strategy in 1992 and '96, but some critics darkly noted that he failed to win majorities both times, while the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot let him sneak in the back door. Neither Al Gore nor John Kerry worked the strategy well enough to win the White House in 2000 and 2004.

Hillary Clinton staked out her claim well ahead of 2008. She would break with the white-male-ticket strategy, but she was thought to bear enough of Bill Clinton's patina to attract sufficient white male votes for a win. The novelty of the first female president - coupled with the manifest unpopularity of George W. Bush, the Iraq War, and the Republican Party - would surely sweep her triumphantly into the Oval Office. So went the conventional thinking.

But shrewd politicians in the Democratic Party saw an opportunity in Mrs. Clinton's break with tradition. Among them was Barak Obama - a young, barely-known community activist from Illinois elected to the U. S. Senate in 2004. Mr. Obama and his advisors saw Mrs. Clinton as a lightweight with questionable qualifications for the office, who would lean heavily on her gender and her close association with the former president to win. If she could break the unwritten white-male-ticket rule, why couldn't he?

Mr. Obama's candidacy started modestly - contrasted with Mrs. Clinton's well oiled, high-profile machine - but his cool hipness, grace, good looks, modesty, and forensic skills soon had voters and reporters cheering. Sometime during February, the media seemed to realize: "this guy could win it." The horserace was on. The media had caught "Obamamania", and suddenly Mrs. Clinton was no longer the "inevitable" Democratic nominee.

Amid the wonderful excitement of the Obama-Clinton competition, few noticed that the Democrats' Grand Strategy was headed for rough waters. The unexpected - indeed, the unthinkable - had happened. The white male candidate reaching across the political divide was forgotten. Representatives of two major constituent groups in the Party are now locked in a death-struggle for the nomination. Each has attempted to avoid being the candidate of his/her group.

Mrs. Clinton initially tried not to be the "women's" candidate, and Mr. Obama tried hard not to run as the "black" candidate. But desperate situations call for desperate measures. Faced with a looming defeat in New Hampshire, Mrs. Clinton dropped her "tougher than tough" act and showed her "vulnerable" womanly side by answering a question with a catch in her voice and a (possible) tear in her eye. Next day, a 3-point victory kept her candidacy alive.

Mr. Obama cranked up the "hope" and "change" message that can mean anything to anyone, but he tacked toward "authentic blackness" to draw racial minorities. In Mississippi he won 92% of the African-American vote - once a reliable Clinton constituency that helped Bill Clinton win his two terms. Mrs. Clinton had initially expected to split black votes, if not take a majority of them.

Looking toward Ohio and Texas, Mrs. Clinton made a maximum effort to paint Mr. Obama as just another black candidate with little appeal beyond his own race. (An acquaintance, who had lived in Ohio, correctly predicted that Ohio - a semi-southern state - would never choose a black candidate.) Mrs. Clinton also "threw in the kitchen sink" with a fear-mongering ad showing the White House red phone ringing late at night while moppets sleep trustingly in their beds. The ad asked who the voter wanted to answer that phone when something threatening happens - i.e., an "experienced" Hillary Clinton or a "green" Barak Hussein Obama of questionable loyalty and dependability. (The photo of Mr. Obama in African drag came out around the same time.) Mrs. Clinton pulled out a narrow win in Texas and a comfortable win in Ohio. She netted only a handful of delegates, overall, but the runaway Obama-train was stopped.

In the current breathing space before Pennsylvania's primary (April 22), Mrs. Clinton clearly plans to step up her efforts to marginalize Mr. Obama as a "minority" candidate with scant experience and no broad appeal. Geraldine Ferraro - Walter Mondale's vice-presidential running mate in 1984 - sacrificed herself by publicly declaring that Mr. Obama would not be where he is now except for being a black man. (She subsequently left the Clinton campaign.)

In recent days, clips have been shown and heard of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr. - former pastor of Mr. and Mrs. Obama's home church - spewing rabidly anti-American, racist invective from the pulpit. The Rev. Wright is identified as the Obama campaign's "spiritual advisor". Pundits, commentators and radio talk-hosts have furiously denounced the reverend's inflammatory remarks, which he calls Black Liberation Theology.

Both candidates are throwing deck chairs at each other while the Party's ship founders on the rocks. The wreck of the Big Tent strategy (captained by white men) is plain to see. This ruinous campaign - which none of the wise old heads in the Democratic Party evidently foresaw - will play out to its inevitable end. One of the two candidates must be chosen, and the other must be disappointed. The loser will have come within a whisker of the nomination. His/her followers will be stunned by the tantalizing nearness of success - only to see the prize slip away at the finish line. They will be enraged that the system has "failed" them. Soothing words will not do.

The leopard cannot change its spots. A party committed to gender- and racial-politics as its path to power cannot shed those identity labels on cue. When the chips are down, the party of "tolerance" reverts to true type and begins to resemble Bull Connor on a dog day afternoon. Only the fire hoses are missing. Both candidates have shown themselves to be incipient racists. (Perhaps they could jointly author a campaign-memoir called, "The Hopelessness of Racism.")

Special-interest grievance politics has shown itself to be a foundation of sand for a political party. If America is lucky, it will be permanently discredited and cast into Outer Darkness. By the end of this election season, American voters - whose good judgment has carried America through many a perilous time - will see the corruption of this style of politics laid bare. I believe they will reject it decisively. It cannot help the country. My hope is that a new, purified Democratic Party will rise from the self-immolation of the old one and conform itself to Thomas Jefferson's vision of Democrats as guardians of the People's liberties. That would truly represent a reason to hope.