When the polls closed in Indiana and North Carolina last Tuesday evening, a lot of Barack Obama supporters braced themselves for bad news. Their candidate had just gone through a harrowing month, divided neatly in two by his thumping in the Pennsylvania primary. He had been repeatedly gored by a pair of old bulls, his ex-President and his ex-pastor, both of them maddened by his success and aggrieved by his presumption. He had been singed in a media bonfire sparked by trivia and fanned into flame by culture-war-mongering. His remark about the bitterness of displaced workers supposedly made him an élitist; his glancing acquaintance with a sixty-something ex-Weatherman supposedly made him a friend of terrorists.
On the stump, he seemed subdued, wearied by the bumpy last stage of the long, astonishing ascent he began fifteen months ago, when he set out to do battle with one of the most famous women in the world, whose arsenal included a huge war chest, backed by a fund-raising apparatus unparalleled in Democratic politics; the support of the great majority of Democratic officeholders ready to declare a preference; and, as her chief surrogate, the most successful Democratic politician of the past forty years. Although North Carolina had long been seen as a lock for Obama, on account of its large African-American population, there were late polls that put him and Hillary Clinton within the margin of error; Indiana seemed out of reach, according to the polls, which in any case had a record of overestimating his strength.
Losing both states probably wouldn’t have cost Obama the nomination, but it would have meant, at a minimum, a brutal, ugly, down-to-the-wire endgame guaranteed to leave the ultimate winner seriously, perhaps fatally, weakened. So when the returns started coming in, showing an Obama landslide in North Carolina and a shrinking Clinton lead in Indiana, Obama supporters looked at one another in happy wonderment. As Clinton’s margin in Indiana slipped below twenty thousand, Tim Russert, of NBC, went on the air to say, bluntly, “We now know who the Democratic nominee’s going to be, and no one’s going to dispute it.” Just after dawn, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos decreed, “This nomination fight is over.” On CBS, Bob Schieffer brought the networks to unanimity. “Basically,” he said, “this race is over.” And the New York Post hit the streets with cruel tabloid succinctness: a picture of the home-state senator over a single word—“TOAST!”—in block letters three inches high.
When and where, it is not too soon to ask, did she go wrong? Well, here’s one answer: eight years ago, in New York. If she had chosen, instead, to move to Illinois, where her accent is familiar and her connections deep (Chicago’s her home town, after all), she could have settled in and sought her Senate seat there, in 2004. She didn’t do that, presumably for reasons both marital (Bill’s not really a Second City kind of guy) and political (she would have had to run for President as a first-term senator rather than as a reëlected one). But Barack Obama would still be a local or regional up-and-comer and, most likely, a Hillary supporter. Here’s another: five and a half years ago, in Washington. If she had opposed authorizing the Iraq war, the activists—grassroots and netroots—might have mobilized for her rather than against her. She might have cruised to the nomination, and the Democratic Party might now be basking in the warm glow of being about to make history by electing the first woman President.
It is surely beyond galling for Hillary Clinton to find herself losing to a freshman senator who is young (forty-six, Bill Clinton’s age when he got elected), whose “firstness” matches hers, who has no executive experience at any level of government and not much foreign-policy experience of the conventional kind, and whom few Americans had heard of until, at John Kerry’s invitation, he stood up to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Convention. You have to feel a little sorry for the Clintons, having their restoration upended by such an unlooked-for political phenomenon.
But some months ago, when it dawned on the Clintons that “winning clean” might not be a viable option, they began to explore less elevated paths. The summertime gas-tax holiday that became her hobbyhorse in Indiana and North Carolina was one of the milder examples. Its original proposer was John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, yet it had no support in the White House, and virtually none in the Democratic Congress. A hundred economists, including liberal stalwarts like James Galbraith, Alice Rivlin, and the Nobelist Joseph Stiglitz, denounced it, and the Clinton campaign could find none to endorse it. Obama rejected it, rightly, as a gimmick, and said that at best it might save the average motorist a total of thirty dollars. Even that was too generous; according to the economists, it would probably just transfer revenue from the government to the oil companies. It was a pseudo-populist hoax—an act of condescension far more profound than Obama’s remark about bitterness. And, to judge by the results last Tuesday, it was a failure as a political ploy.
The TV pundits were both right and wrong. They were right that we now know who the nominee will be, but they were wrong about the race being over. Much will depend on how it gets to be over and, especially, on how Senator Clinton behaves. Her speech in Indiana was incoherent, part valedictory (“This has been an extraordinary experience”), part battle cry (“Full speed on to the White House!”), but more the latter than the former. She demanded that her Florida and Michigan delegates, elected in defiance of Party rules that she had agreed to follow, be fully accredited. “It would be a little strange to have a nominee chosen by forty-eight states,” she said, and her husband, in an e-mail to supporters, added, “People want Hillary to stay in this race until every last voter has a say.” (Never mind that in January the Clintons’ chamberlain, Terry McAuliffe, had called the race “a twenty-seven-state contest” that would be “over on February 5th.”) Still, her speech was notably free of attacks on Obama or insinuations about his color.
The next day, however, in an instantly notorious interview with USA Today, Clinton was back to arguing her superior electability. “There was just an A.P. article posted that found how Senator Obama’s support among working, hardworking Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how the whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me,” she said. “ There’s a pattern emerging here.”
Indeed there is, and it should be painted over as soon as possible. Hillary Clinton, as her record from high school onward proves, is the very opposite of a racist. This time, she seems to have well and truly misspoken. But if she plans to drag the contest out for another month or two she will be wise to avoid this sort of demographic analysis—and, more important, to abandon the dishonorable political strategy that underlies it. If she doesn’t, it won’t just be Chicago that she didn’t go back to. It’ll be a place called hope.