Hillary Clinton’s victories in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island have added another dimension to the contest for the White House. That said, the mathematical obstacles of beating Obama in the delegate count seem insurmountable. Her role is rapidly becoming that of a spoiler, and her switch in tactics has been notable. Steely grit is wheeled out in her speeches. No one is left in doubt: she will "fight" (the word is drummed like a chant) all the way to the White House.
Clinton has sought time and time again to perforate Obama’s rhetoric of hope. Obama’s Teflon coating seemed sturdy enough to deflect the Clinton machine. But the Illinois Senator looked somewhat shakier in the latest round of primaries, stumbling where he had otherwise soared. While he recovered in Wyoming, the losses the previous week in the big State primaries were telling. His positioning on NAFTA was peculiar. Instead of hurling the ruinous effects of the free-trade program – notably in Ohio – back at Clinton, he turned the other cheek.
The main argument against the Democratic contest between Obama and Clinton is that a sparring show is somehow debilitating to unity in the face of a formidable opponent. Maureen Dowd, for instance, makes the case that the Democrats are engaged in the ultimate nightmare scenario for the pragmatic voter: identity politics. "All the victimizations go tripping over each other and colliding, a competition of historical guilts." Misogyny is in a title fight with racism and America is going to the polls on which one it suffers less from.
The gloomy synopsis is written thus: the Democrats will bleed themselves into oblivion – the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver will become a noxious battleground, resembling the Chicago Convention of August 1968. The factions will fail to unite under the victor, and the Democrat nominee will face the same dilemmas Hubert Humphrey faced on his way to defeat (by the time he was nominated in Chicago, Humphrey had been weakened by the
anti-Vietnam War candidate from Minnesota, Senator Eugene McCarthy, and the
initial efforts of Senator Robert Kennedy).
The Republicans, solidly unified under McCain, will snatch victory from what was looking, for a time, as certain defeat. The negative note struck in the American political newsletter Counterpunch is deafening. Its editors, veteran members of the left, Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, see the Democrats as the lemmings of modern American politics.
To the calamity of 1968, the Democrats could boast the failure of 1972, when party officials and factional infighting crippled George McGovern’s chances of defeating Richard Nixon. Not to be outdone, Teddy Kennedy derailed Jimmy Carter in 1980 with an "insurgency" which persisted to the convention, and even there, Kennedy refused to concede. Enter the Clinton machine, a beast otherwise insentient to party loyalties. "The Clintons," write Cockburn and St. Clair, "never confused their own political fortunes with those of the Democratic Party."
All this may be taken as a given. But let’s suggest a synopsis to counter this: in the first instance, the Republicans won’t necessarily know who to target. If politics is the perpetual tussle with an "enemy", it is best to know who your enemy actually is. The Grand Old Party machine will be puzzled. Their Presidential opponent will not have been decided.
Another, maybe more plausible scenario: overwhelming, saturating attention will be focused on the Democrats. For the first time in years, the Democrats will shed the chrysalis of banality that has characterised its politics since 2000. Clinton will continue to snap at Obama’s heels. But amid the gnashing of teeth and the politics of identity, they have a lot to talk about. Americans will listen.
With the Democratic contest seducing the press, McCain will be grasping for attention. He will have to work on keeping his puzzled party in strict rank-and-file even as the press buzzards seek richer pickings in the Obama-Clinton contest. He will need to beef up the flagging credentials of Republican conservatism, something he has only just begun doing. The Democrats may be having a dragged-out domestic, but under Bush, the Republicans ceased having a conversation about American politics years ago.
Then, there is the election itself. Many voters in November will not necessarily let McCain off the hook, however bruised his opponent will be. McCain may be the man for the intrepid independents and disaffected conservatives, but he is also a member of the same party that saw America into an era of profligate spending and a war he will not end. The Republicans, for those very reasons, have much to answer for.