No matter what November brings, Barack Obama has managed to accomplish something no Republican has done since 1980: He has wrung a concession speech out of the Clintons.
Clintonite dead-enders may never forgive him for it. As Hillary Rodham Clinton suspended her presidential campaign and pledged to back the man who defeated her in the Democratic delegate race, there was a smattering of boos the first time Obama’s name was mentioned. Nevertheless, Hillary intoned, “I endorse him, and throw my full support behind him. And I ask all of you to join me in working as hard for Barack Obama as you have for me.”
The era of Bill’s government is over — for now, at least.
Hillary Clinton was supposed to be the inevitable nominee. She led in the early polls and the first superdelegate tallies. Obama stumbled in the summer and fall of 2007, raising questions about whether such an inexperienced candidate could possibly compete with the Clinton machine. In October 2007, Hillary led Obama 57 percent to 33 percent among black registered Democrats. She was the choice of 68 percent of black women voters.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to the Clinton restoration. Obama won the Iowa caucuses. Hillary finished third. Her image of inevitability was forever shattered. Black voters, sensing a historic opportunity, began moving en masse to Obama. The Clinton campaign found itself ill prepared for a long, drawn-out contest with a freshman senator they planned to dispatch quickly. Mark Penn famously misunderstood how California’s delegates were allocated. The Clintons took a pass on the caucus states, allowing Obama’s young and enthusiastic supporters to out-hustle them for delegates.
Bill Clinton’s famous political skills failed him. The man Toni Morrison called our “first black president” displayed a tin ear for African Americans. He belittled Obama as a “kid” whose campaign pitch on the Iraq war was “the biggest fairytale.” After Obama won the South Carolina primary with more than 80 percent of the black vote, the former president was seen as comparing Obama’s appeal to Jesse Jackson’s. By the end of the race, Hillary’s share of the black vote in many primaries tumbled to Barry Goldwater-size percentages.
Obama and Clinton split the Super Tuesday states. Instead of wrapping up the nomination in February, Hillary found herself on the wrong end of an 11-state Obama winning streak. By the time she regained her footing — and regain it she did with spectacular showings in the fourth quarter of the game — she was too far behind to catch up easily.
The handwriting was on the wall before the first ballots were cast. Clinton fatigue was for real, and present even among Democrats. During the 1990s, liberals put up with triangulation, business-friendly centrism, and the permanent campaign because they were tired of the beatings administered by Republican presidential candidates. Bill Clinton was a winner and his enemies were in the vast right-wing conspiracy.
But liberal misgivings about the Clinton bargain were obvious as early as 2000, when nearly 3 million mostly progressive voters bolted the Democratic Party for Ralph Nader rather than support a triangulating Gore-Lieberman ticket. The liberal media had pent up frustrations with the Clintons. And the left did not enjoy seeing the campaign tactics that were used against Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr bashing one of the Democrats’ rising stars.
Democrats learned they could win elections without the Clintons. Combative, non-triangulating Democrats won the 2006 elections. Clinton opponents took control of the Democratic National Committee and the house speakership. The political analyst Chuck Todd rightly pointed out that it should have been a warning sign when only 25 percent of the superdelegates initially came out for Clinton.
Obama subtly but masterfully tapped into Clinton fatigue on the left and center. His change narrative could be applied to the Clintons as easily as the Bushes. He spoke out against a war Democrats despised and the ever-cautious Hillary voted to authorize. He didn’t differ much on policy, except where he was frequently to her left, but he differed in style.
Hillary, by contrast, campaigned as if she were running for the Republican nomination. She talked about experience and implied it was her turn. She played up her (thin) commander-in-chief credentials, asking voters which candidate they wanted answering the phone at 3 a.m. She focused on the big states even though none of them were winner-take-all.
Give the lady her due, however. Hillary was a remarkably resilient candidate. She fought back from defeat in Iowa to win New Hampshire. She piled up wins in California, New York, Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Although she entered politics as a McGovern Democrat, winning the endorsement of George McGovern himself in her 2008 race, Hillary morphed into a Hubert Humphrey Democrat when she needed to counter Obama’s coalition of affluent white liberals and 90 percent of blacks (“eggheads and African-Americans,” Clinton confidante Paul Begala called them).
Hillary Clinton is the last person you would think could do a convincing enough blue-collar impression to win over culturally conservative Catholics in the Midwest and working-class white Protestants in Appalachia. Yet when the delegate math overwhelmingly favored Obama, she rolled up a 41-point margin in West Virginia and a 30-point victory in Kentucky. On the night Obama clinched the nomination, she bested him by ten points in South Dakota.
In the process, Hillary exposed weaknesses in — and fostered resentments against — Obama’s candidacy. To many working-class whites and some Latinos, Obama does not yet represent change they can believe in. Hillary’s women supporters felt cheated in the Democratic Party’s identity-politics game. Her strong showing in the popular vote — she trails Obama by just 0.1 percent without Michigan and leads him by 0.8 percent when the Wolverine State is included — led to cries of “selected, not elected.” The 2000 hangover has left Democrats unable to lose gracefully even to one another.
None of this has gone unnoticed by John McCain. He will redouble his efforts in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. McCain spoke to the Clinton supporters’ anger when he said last week, “Pundits and party elders have decided Senator Obama will be my opponent.” The presumptive Republican nominee hopes we will hear from Hillary’s angriest supporters again in the fall.
We certainly haven’t heard the last of the Clintons themselves. Even in defeat, they are a force to be reckoned with. But they don’t look so invincible — or inevitable — anymore.
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