Somehow, something unheard of is happening—a novice politician and senator Barack Obama is going to receive the presidential nomination from the oldest political party in the world. Somehow, in a nation with such a long and brutal history of race relations, a black man or at least a man with a black father is making a very serious bid to govern a historically white nation. Somehow a guy with a Muslim name is being talked of as commander in chief. The nation has come a long way since the Selma march. How did it happen?
First, Obama has promised Americans a different type of politics, one very different from the Lee Atwater-Karl Rove brand of Republican slander against which the Clintons were forced to toughen themselves. Sometimes to beat our enemies, we have to do as they do.
Second, the Clintons, with their long record of racial concerns, did not expect to face a young black man in the presidential candidate. Hillary, adopting the Mark Penn strategy, decided that she was really the heir apparent to the White House before she ran in her first primary. It would be over by Super Tuesday, so she neglected raising money and putting troops on the ground in other later states.
Third, she neglected the differing dynamics of caucuses, the silly personalistic style of politics that the coffee clatch Democrats put in place in some states instead of the secret ballot. She believed that she could establish a sense of early momentum that could roll over the Bidens, the Dodds and the Richardsons. She did these, but she never figured that Obama would do so well with his simple slogan, “yes, we can.”
Hillary Clinton, and her husband, misjudged the temperament of the American people. They not only wanted someone who knew the system, they were fed up with the system. The revulsion toward Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest turned to a disappointment at the pathetic Democrat controlled Congress and spread out to the whole Washington political establishment. Obama began to win even in white states like Iowa and New Hampshire shattering the illusion that he, in Bill Clinton’s unfortunate phrase, was just like Jesse Jackson. Bill, once the best strategist in the game, lost his touch. It has been a long time since 1992 and he was so busy making money that he lost his populist roots.
Obama is clearly favored by the college educated, the wealthier, the more independent Democrats, while Hillary has gotten the bread and butter lower class Democrats, the working class Democrats, or as she inelegantly said—the white Democrats.
Periodically, the American people respond to rhetoric, and Obama went from being a University of Chicago professor to a really clear and convincing orator. He consistently refused to get in the gutter to play the game, and so it is difficult for other liberal Democrats to slug it out with him. He was helped immensely by a fawning media that wanted to prove that they were hip and tolerant, and that they could see another John F. Kennedy on their beat. When Caroline Kennedy went over to Obama, the liberal media was elated. It is one thing for Teddy Kennedy to approve of you, but another when the last child of Camelot weighs in. She did for Obama in the middle of the campaign what Oprah did for him in the very beginning—she raised his status and gave him a bigger audience. The vague idealistic message, however, was his and his alone. Now he is left standing, facing the elderly patriot of another era—John McCain. The oldest man running for president is facing one of the youngest in a true generational contest. The outcome is not clear, for Obama will have to carry the very states he lost to Hillary: Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, and Florida. Surely we know that race is important, but so too are the bad economic times, the demise of the middle class, the fuel and food squeeze, and that interminable war in Iraq. Obama will portray McCain as Bush III, while once again the Republicans tell us his life story.
Michael P. Riccards is Executive Director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy – New Jersey.