Hillary's Flimsy Case for the Nomination
In the space of three short months, I've contrived to write two lengthy, gloating political obituaries for Hillary Clinton, only to see both of them blow up in my face after fantastic eleventh-hour comebacks that ended with scenes of the Hillmeister doing the dual flabby-arm raise on CNN while gusts of confetti whooshed across the room, obscuring almost everything except the shocking results blaring out from the crawl on the bottom of the screen. There was a time when this race looked like it might become the most uplifting in a generation. It's now threatening to become the most divisive and disturbing. It is a good time to ponder how that happened — and to address a few of the other Frequently Asked Questions about this depraved circus that is now poised to continue well past Pennsylvania.
Isn't Hillary Clinton better qualified than Barack Obama to be president, given that she is the more experienced candidate?
The idea that Clinton is somehow more qualified to deal with international crises because she has more "experience" is one of the strangest things I've seen the media swallow whole in a long time, dating back to the "tiny, sand-covered, yet-to-master-the-art-of-plumbing nation of Iraq is an imminent military threat to the United States" fiasco. According to my calculations —worked out over many hours, using long division out to eighteen places —Clinton is a second-term senator, while Barack Obama, conversely, is a first-term senator. By any reasonable standard, both are political neophytes.
Clinton talks a lot about having visited "over eighty countries" —but then, Chelsea was with her on a lot of those trips, and I doubt folks are rushing to hand her the red phone. In case anyone has forgotten what exactly first lady Hillary Clinton really did all those years, here is a press account of a 1997 trip that she made to Senegal with her daughter: "Her first stop in Senegal was at Goree Island, where she peered through the 'Door of No Return,' through which slaves passed on their way to the dreaded Middle Passage of the Slave Trade. When she arrived in Dakar, the first lady was greeted by Senegalese who danced and serenaded her with lyrics written especially for the occasion." Shit, I feel better about that 3 a.m. phone call already!
It is worth noting that Hillary was being packed off on these trips into the heart of Africa at precisely the time when her husband was getting his knob polished by an intern in the Oval Office. That's not a reflection on her personally —but for the Hillary camp to tout her advantage in foreign affairs based on these trips into the marital wilderness, as compared to a candidate who has actually lived overseas and has actual relatives living in villages like the ones Hillary passed over in her glass-bottomed boat, is beyond absurd.
When it comes time for delegates to vote at the convention, shouldn't they take into account that Clinton has performed better than Obama in the so-called battleground states? Doesn't she stand a better chance against John McCain in the national election?
In reality, the exact opposite is true. Everything about the results so far suggests that Obama is the more electable candidate according to the "battleground" voter the Clinton camp is claiming for their own.
The Clinton strategy for winning the presidency is so simple, even a chimpanzee could grasp it. You win the blue states, the Massachusettses and the New Jerseys, almost automatically, just by being pro-choice and saying nice things about trees and gay people. You concede the really red states, the places like Tennessee and Kentucky where you're fucked anyway, places where huge pluralities believe the devil really exists and has thick red skin and a bull's horns. That leaves you free to compete hard in the mixed-bag states by drifting to the right as far as you can without losing your in-pocket blue territories, which is really hard to do unless you start wobbling on abortion or selling out the spotted owl. It is through the prism of this new Clintonian strategy that presidential politics has basically been reduced to winning Florida and Ohio.
But saying that Hillary is better qualified to take on John McCain because of her performance in those states only makes sense if (a) you believe that the people who voted for Clinton in the primaries will not vote for Obama in the general election, and (b) you believe that no Democrat can win the traditionally red states. In fact, Hillary has mostly been winning the traditionally blue states —places like New York, California, Massachusetts and New Jersey —that are going to go blue in November anyway, no matter who is running on the Republican ticket. And even in the states Hillary has won, it has been registered Democrats, not swing voters, who have carried her to victory, while Obama has dominated her in virtually every contest among registered independents. Even in her home state of New York, Obama whipped Hillary among independents by fifteen percent. In Missouri, that margin was twenty-eight percent. In California? Thirty percent.
Obama, meanwhile, has performed extraordinarily well in traditionally red states like Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina. And sure, some of that is due to the black vote. But all of his victories have been marked by two things: larger-than-usual turnout and routs among independents, leading to the large number of blowout wins that are basically responsible for his delegate lead at the moment. On Super Tuesday, Hillary won sixty percent of the vote in only one contest, Bill's home state of Arkansas. Obama won seven states by that margin or more.
In other words, Hillary is winning the Democratic voters who are going to vote Democratic anyway. Obama is bringing in new voters, and he's winning large numbers of swing voters in red states.
What happens if Hillary ends up taking the nomination despite trailing in both the popular vote and the delegate count?
Put it this way: If this race ends up getting decided by a bunch of political insiders, in defiance of the popular vote, it's going to render all self-righteousness about the 2000 debacle meaningless. And if Hillary ends up winning it by claiming Florida delegates from an uncontested election, in the process once again disenfranchising thousands of minority voters in Miami and other urban areas (who would have voted for Obama, just as they voted for Gore in 2000), then it'll end up being a double fuck-you to the public, a signal that the Democrats are no different from the Bush Republicans.
What if the nomination gets decided by the superdelegates?
In the old days, we had a different name for superdelegates. We called them party bosses. If either Clinton or Obama wins by virtue of a superdelegate revolt against the popular will —particularly when both candidates have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the superdelegates through their leadership PACs —then we're looking at an election that huge pluralities of the country will view as illegitimate. One more experience like this and we'll end up with Swedish election observers stepping in to run the 2012 race.
Are the Clinton camp's attacks against Obama racist?
Not really. What they are is opportunistic. The Clintonian campaign philosophy is basically an inverse of the Nixonian Southern Strategy: It accepts as gospel the notion that the old coalition of white labor and blacks that kept the South Democratic for generations has been severed forever by the rise of evangelical Christianity and social conservatism. Therefore the Clintons don't try to win back those white workers in the lost Southern states through, say, a more staunch advocacy of unions; instead, they try to pry away Nixon's old "silent majority" voters by courting the same fears about safety and national security that Tricky Dick used to take the South away from Democrats in the first place.
It's no accident that Hillary ran her "3 a.m." commercial in Texas but not Ohio; this was a cunning ploy to win back those scared white voters whom the Clinton strategy insists are needed to win. And it worked: After the ad, her support among white Texans jumped from forty-four to fifty-six percent. Does it help that her opponent is a black dude with a Muslim middle name? Sure. But the fearmongering by the Clintons is more about winning blue-collar votes without alienating their big-business buddies than it is about exploiting fears of a black planet. With the Clintons, ideology is always whatever gets them through the night. They haven't been reduced to balls-out, Willie Horton racism yet. That's not to say that they won't get there —they're just not there yet.
Won't the Republicans go after Obama with even nastier stuff?
Not long ago, I was talking to former Bush speechwriter David Frum, and he told me he thinks that Obama's Achilles' heel is patriotism. Put Obama in the general election, he said, and the Republicans are going to hammer him relentlessly. They're going to bring up everything they can find that bolsters the argument that Obama isn't slobberingly, priapistically patriotic: the famed decision to stop wearing his American flag pin because it was being used as a substitute for "true patriotism"; the now-infamous photo of him holding his hands at his waist while Hillary patriotically clasped her heart during the national anthem; the comments by his wife, Michelle, about being really proud of America "for the first time in my adult life"; the associations with Sixties radicals. Along with his middle name and the unkillable rumors of Muslim leanings, it's obvious where the Republicans are going to be aiming if they have to run against this guy all summer. If and when that happens, Obama is going to find out pretty quick that there's no explanation you can possibly give to Middle America for taking off your flag lapel pin that is going to make sense to them.
So Obama is weakest on the issue of patriotism?
No -- Obama's real weakness is that nobody really knows yet what he's all about. He is running as a symbol of a new politics, a politics somehow less disgusting and full of shit than the old politics. But if it were to get out that he's not that —that all he is is the same old deal dressed up in black skin and a natty suit —then he quickly morphs into a different kind of symbol, a symbol of how an essentially bankrupt political system can seamlessly repackage itself to a fed-up marketplace by making cosmetic changes, without altering its basic nature. There have been disturbing signs along that front, from the accusations that Obama aides called his anti-NAFTA stance "just politics," to his angry stumpery against a Maytag plant closing even as he pals around with Lester Crown, a Maytag board member who raised huge sums for his campaign. Right now, Obama has millions of voters thinking Santa Claus really does exist; but if he keeps getting caught turning the usual tricks with campaign donors, attention is going to shift away from his heroic image and toward the prosaic reality, which in politics is always grubby and depressing. And with that, his value as a symbol will evaporate, and Christmas turns into just another holiday with those same relatives you hated every other day of the year.
Should Obama go negative against Hillary, as the press is urging him to?
It doesn't matter what Obama does at this point. He's fucked either way. If he gets into a catfight with Hillary, the peanut gallery will slam him for being just another typical politician. If he sits there and just lets her plunge knife after knife into his abdomen, he'll have every hack at Time and Newsweek saying he doesn't have "what it takes" to compete in the "blood sport" that is politics (as if any of those news-mag yuppie turds know anything about actual "blood sports"). I'll say one thing: This endless he-said/she-said piss-fighting between the two camps, with its attendant daily purging of loose-lipped campaign staffers of the Samantha Power/Geraldine Ferraro genus, is a bad place for Barack Obama to be. Nobody in American history has ever been better than the Clintons at calculating the electoral math of resentment, paranoia, media aggression and just flat-out, back-alley nastiness. Every day, the Clintons come up with some new and brilliantly devious way to color the subliminal background of the electoral canvas, from using comparisons to Jesse Jackson to buttonhole Obama as a "black candidate," to floating rumors of an "unstoppable" Hillary-Obama ticket —despite the fact that Hillary would rather eat a KFC bucket full of her own shit than run with Obama —in order to con on-the-fence voters into thinking that a vote for Hillary might also be a vote for Obama. That's why it seemed so weirdly appropriate that Samantha "she's a monster" Power was forced to resign from the Obama campaign, while Gerry Ferraro could all but call Obama a nigger and then claim that she was the victim of discrimination. We expect the Clintons to play dirty, and don't demand that they apologize for doing so. But we'd be disappointed in Obama if he went there.
So with all this Democratic infighting, is John McCain going to be the next president?
McCain may be an asshole, but he's not an idiot. He's doing exactly the right thing right now by going overseas for a fact-finding tour in Europe and the Middle East —basically exiling himself from the public eye —while Obama and Hillary claw each other's eyes out every five minutes on MSNBC. He's smart enough to know that whichever candidate emerges from the Democratic scrum is going to have a face like an uncooked side of beef come general-election season; he doesn't need to say a word to raise both of their negatives. Hillary is doing half of McCain's dirty work for him by repeatedly assailing Obama's supposed lack of experience and questionable patriotism, while Obama is inadvertently helping McCain's cause by forcing Hillary to go all craven psycho-bitch on him to stay alive in the race. We saw this effect on display most overtly after the Cleveland debate, when the angry back-and-forth banter by both Obama and Hillary left McCain, for the first time, leading in the polls against either candidate.
Democrats had all the momentum going into this race because of seven years of uninterrupted press scrutiny of the Bush administration; by the time November rolls around, however, most voters are going to feel like the Democrats have been in charge for over a year. And McCain will be able to swoop in and ride a "throw the bums out" uprising straight to the White House —just in time to actually keep the same old bums in charge. In American politics, always look for the worst possible scenario to emerge triumphant. And right now, that's it.