The race for the Democratic nomination now lurches on to what is already being billed as the next major battleground in Pennsylvania on April 22, and any Democrat with any memory of kindred blood lettings in the past should shiver as history begins to repeat itself. After eight disastrous years of Bush, with a candidate like John McCain, who says he knows nothing the economy and thinks the US will be in Iraq for the next 100 years, almost the only way any Democratic nominee can lose the presidential face off in the fall with be a protracted internecine battle, ultimately decided by the Democratic convention in the last week of August.
The press is blaring tidings of a great Clinton comeback in Ohio and Texas last night, both states in which she had twenty point leads in late February. But in terms of delegates Obama is ahead by what appears to be an insurmountable margin. The only way Hillary Clinton can win the nomination is to savage Obama with calumnies, bloodying him to a point where the Clintons can turn make the case to the super delegates in the convention that in a race against McCain Obama has already been fatally wounded.
It’s a course to which the Clinton campaign is now totally committed, exactly along the lines advocated by Mark Penn, Hillary’s pollster and chief strategist. Penn’s policy has been the antithesis of any grand coalition of the kind put together by Roosevelt in the 1930s. Already in south Carolina the Clinton campaign was willing to throw the black vote overboard. In Texas Clinton deliberately exploited Hispanic-black animosities.
Obama has plenty to be rueful about. He managed the astounding feat of being on the defensive in Ohio about trade, at the hands of a Clinton. The history of the late 1980s and 1990s was the Clintons at the head of the Democratic Leadership Council, arguing that the free trade agreements were essential to America’s future. Ohio, devastated by job flight was treated to the spectacle of the Obama campaign failing on this very issue, because Obama shrank from making the full case against what Clinton did to working people in the 1990s. He could have slaughtered the Clinton record on Hillary’s disastrous effort at health care reform, on the trade agreements, on the welfare bill, on the well- documented fact that the people who did well in the Clinton era were the rich. He was too innately cautious to play the populist card and he paid the price.
The adulatory press coverage that Obama enjoyed throughout February took the edge of his campaign and left it flatfooted when Hillary had the effrontery to claim that Obama was the one who had to do the explaibing on NAFTA. Obama was similarly slow to counter Hillary’s decision to play the national security card, telling the voters that the American people would be safe in either her on John McCain’s hands but not those of the young senator.
If Obama could not swiftly counter by pointing out that Clinton bought the Bush line on the war hook, line and sinker, doing no independent checking of her own, then his prospects of standing up to McCain don’t look too rosy. A campaign has to be ready to throw mud and there’s mud by the barrow load for Obama to throw at Clinton but in the end she was the one who put him on the defensive.
In 1968 the antiwar forces came to the convention in Chicago fired with the sense that their candidates, Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy, had crushed Hubert in the primaries. But just as Richard Daley’s police battered the protesters, so too did the party machine crush the antiwar forces and force Hubert Humphrey down their throats inside the convention hall. Humphrey was never able to reunite the fractured party and lost to Richard Nixon.
In 1972 the party bosses never accepted George McGovern, who finally accepted the nomination at three am in Miami and was sabotage by the Democrats and the AFL-CIO and crushed by Nixon in the fall.
Not learning from this, the Democrats saw Teddy Kennedy launch an insurgency against Jimmy Carter in 1980 which spluttered all the way to the convention, where Kennedy refused to concede and drew blood from Carter until the bitter end. A weakened Carter went down before Reagan in a terrible rout for the Democrats.
The Clintons have never been confused their own political fortunes with those of the Democratic Party. In 1996 and 1998 Bill Clinton refused to release campaign surpluses from his own war chest to help elect Democrats to the House and the Senate. Obama’s campaign has most certainly rallied blacks and the young to the Democratic Party. These new recruits will surely melt away as they see the party machine grind the politics of hope in the dirt.
McCain couldn’t have hoped for a better day.