Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Rainbow Party Pays the Price

These are historic times for the Democratic Party, that now has an opportunity to become the dominant political party in American life. The Democratic coalition is gelling into something solid while the Republican one is fracturing. Demographics are on the side of liberalism as the Republicans can only try to keep as many people from voting as possible, for as long as possible. But what were the odds that the first absolutely credible woman candidate and the first absolutely credible black candidate would emerge during the same election? As a Party loyalist I wince at the stresses and tensions that this situation brings, but rejoice that it is the Democrats who are, to use a Clintonian trope from the nineties, the "bridge to the future." This sort of thing is not easy, as the Clintons, who did so much throughout the nineties to forge the rainbow party that we now are, notably by appointing, supporting and including far more than token numbers of blacks and women to all levels of government, are discovering. Rising expectations and deep cynicism among blacks lead to a quick perception that the Clintons are unfairly attacking a black man, a misperception confirmed as fact by an irresponsible media. But my point today is precisely that this sort of tension and problem is strictly unavoidable; it's something that we as a society have to work through. It is easier for whites to look away rather than confront old problems, but the leadership of the Democrats is now taking us in the positive, though difficult, direction. Both Clinton and Obama swear to avoid the trap of racial division at every dust-up, but no matter how hard they try there is is again, five minutes later.
Obama's entry into national political life, seemingly out of nowhere, was brilliant in its conception: he established himself as the candidate who happened to be black, rather than the black candidate (and let's acknowledge the historic achievement of Jesse Jackson in 1988), and he did it by getting white support. That was the breakthrough accomplishment. Now there is another, trickier task, that is to overcome the well-grounded suspicion and alienation of black voters, to move the community into issues-based voting as distinct from race-based voting. So far as I can see, the black community is showing us just as encouraging evidence that this is happening as white voters in Iowa and, of all places, South Carolina are showing that they are ready for a black hero. But we are tottering back and forth between the old way and the new, and it is Senator Clinton, I would submit, who is paying the highest price.
There are some clear advantages to Obama's position. Clinton supporters (like me) are by and large ready and in fact eager to support Obama if he is the nominee, while Clinton's negatives combined with her role as "establishment" make her, not him, seem like the riskier candidate for the general election (although I don't agree that she actually is the riskier). The difference in the alchemy of a black candidate and a woman candidate is difficult and fascinating. No one is talking about large numbers of women sitting out the election if they are hurt and disappointed. There is not the sense of the justice of payback for historical grievances in the "gender" (sex is actually the right word, for another post) case that there is in the racial one (although perhaps there should be).
There is a certain euphoria to the whole thing that tempts one to forget about the larger battle to come in the general election. The fact that the Clintons are notorious masters of the Dark Arts of politics continues, to my mind, to be a reason to support them. The Republican corporate mafia, with their racist troops and Christian dupes, will not react with the same sensitivity to a candidacy of a non-white or a non-man.
As to my predictions for the coming weeks, I continue to predict that Clinton will do well in Florida and then go on to lock up the nomination on "Super Tuesday," at which point Obama will face one of his toughest tests yet. A Clinton-Obama ticket is possible (the Clintons will be amenable if that would help them win, Obama will see that the vice-presidency is the logical step to continue running for president), an Obama-Clinton ticket is much more problematic and unlikely. No reason for Obama to want to be saddled with the Clintons. I admit, meanwhile, that the race is indeed open, and Feb. 5th may well be a mix of various outcomes that involve us all in complex calculations (a wonkish way of admitting that Obama is still in it). And it is true that John Edwards can play king-maker here by staying in and taking votes form Clinton. Grisell was arguing this morning (over pancakes and Meet the Press) that it's not clear that Edwards' voters would be Clinton voters, and I admit there's some ambiguity there, but with things this tight even if 30 percent of his voters would otherwise go with Obama he would still be shooting down Clinton. Finally, a significant bit of incoming for an old Dem like me: Sen. Kennedy will endorse Obama. Kennedy and Kerry: two guys who know things that I don't know.

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