Obama v. Clinton: A Retrospective

Eliot Weinberger

On the final night of the relentless presidential primary campaign, Jesse Jackson compared Barack Obama’s victory to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Erica Jong compared Hillary Clinton’s defeat to watching Joan of Arc burning at the stake. Obama was in St Paul, Minnesota, pointedly in the very arena where the Republicans will hold their convention in September, at times barely audible over the nearly continual cheering of 17,000 fans (with another 15,000 listening outside). Clinton was off on what has come to be known as the remote island of Hillaryland – in this case several storeys below ground at Baruch College in New York, inaccessible to cell phones or BlackBerries – still insisting that, according to Hillarymath, she had won the popular vote, still declaring that she was ready to be commander-in-chief on ‘Day One’, and still repeating the creepiest line of her stump speech, the one about the boy who had sold his bicycle to give money to her campaign. (She and Bill made $109 million in the last eight years and she’s taking toys from children? And gloating over it?) She threatened that the 17 million who had voted for her must be ‘respected’, as though she were a warlord and they her private army, while some in the crowd chanted ‘Den-ver! Den-ver!’ – meaning that she should take the fight all the way to the Democratic convention in August. And then there was John McCain, in what seemed to be a high school auditorium somewhere in Louisiana (even he wasn’t sure: he thought he was in New Orleans, but he wasn’t), addressing a few hundred sleepy geriatrics, struggling with the teleprompter and grinning weirdly at random moments. Standing in front of a hideous green backdrop, he looked, as one blogger wrote, like the cottage cheese on a lime Jello salad. Apparently no longer an officer and a gentleman, he took the occasion of this extraordinary moment in American history not to congratulate the first African-American nominee, but rather to deride, with soporific sarcasm, Obama the young whippersnapper and his belief in ‘change’. A bizarre line from McCain’s speech has already become a six-second YouTube classic: ‘We should be able to deliver bottled hot water to dehydrated babies.’

Watching Obama speak, I found it hard to believe that this was the USA. I flashed back to a scene fifty-odd years ago: I was four years old, on a family trip to Florida, and caused a minor scene in a bus station when I wandered over and took a drink from the water fountain marked ‘Colored’. (I could read the sign, but had no idea what it meant.) I’d grown up during the civil rights movement, had heard Martin Luther King speak. And here was an African-American who had risen higher than any non-white person in any Western country, and moreover had done so in a nation that has never, with the exception of the Irish John Kennedy, elected a president from even its white minorities – no Jews, no Poles, no Italians – and had nominated only one other, the hapless Michael Dukakis.

But this was the response of a baby boomer, when in fact one of the remarkable things about the Obama campaign was that it wasn’t about race at all. Obama, though he studiously copied his speaking style from King and other preachers, was not running as a black man. It has already been forgotten that until his victory in Iowa many blacks didn’t know what to make of him. The veterans from the civil rights movement didn’t much like him: he hadn’t come out of their struggle, was an ‘African’ African-American with no personal roots in slavery, and seemed to have a very different agenda: his sense of injustice was universal, and not specifically a response to the indignities suffered by African-Americans. The majority of black women and half of black men supported Clinton. They began to rally behind Obama when it became clear he was appealing to whites, that he was a new kind of African-American politician and might actually succeed. And they deserted Hillary en masse after the first of what would be a series of shocking remarks from the Clintons, who had always been superstars in the black communities: Bill dismissing Obama as another Jesse Jackson (that is, a protest candidate appealing only to blacks), and Hillary, drawing an unspoken parallel, declaring that King may have been a great orator, but it was Lyndon Johnson who got the civil rights legislation passed.

Certainly there are those who voted and will vote for or against Obama because of his race, but horizontal racism has largely disappeared in the US. These days, a white office worker generally has no problem with a black office worker – though poor blacks, of course, remain an alien Other, and an institutionalised racism has kept young black men out of college and in prison. There is a new generation that has grown up with King’s birthday as a national holiday, and the American Heroes I learned about in elementary school, Teddy Roosevelt and Daniel Boone, have been replaced by Rosa Parks and Sacajawea. Nor can one underestimate how pop culture has cleared the path for both Obama and Hillary. (As one comedian cracked, ‘If there’s a black or woman president in the Oval Office, it means an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty.’) Among Obama’s precursors is certainly Oprah Winfrey, the only self-made woman billionaire in America, who has built her television and magazine empire by assuming the role of an upbeat friend, helping you to help yourself. Obama’s slogan ‘Yes we can!’ is Oprah’s essential message; and it’s worth noting that some 90 per cent of her audience is white.

Moreover, virulent racism in the US is now directed at the new arrivals, the Hispanics. Anti-immigrant sentiments were cleverly fused by the Cheney-Bush administration with its War on Terror, and in the current rhetoric – exemplified by the fanatical anchorman Lou Dobbs on CNN – ‘terrorist’ and ‘illegal alien’ have become interchangeable terms in the fear-mongering over ‘security’ and ‘protecting our borders’. A journalist who investigated white supremacist websites found that most of their anger was directed against McCain, considered ‘soft’ on immigration, rather than Obama. (In Aryan Nation logic, Obama as a black man is incapable of thinking and is merely a tool of ZOG, the Zionist Occupational Government, which runs the country.) In the South, white sheriffs, the dreaded figures of the civil rights days, are now finding any pretext – even fishing without a licence – to arrest Hispanics and deport them if they are in the country illegally. For these guardians of justice, blacks may be black, but they’re at least one of ‘us’.

The Obama phenomenon is not, except among justifiably proud African-Americans, about race at all. It’s about a new generation kicking out, at last, the baby boomers and getting past what Obama has called their ‘psychodrama’, which has continued to polarise and paralyse the government. Bill Clinton once said that if you think what happened in the 1960s was a good thing, you’re a Democrat; and if you think it was bad, you’re a Republican. Obama, before he ran for president, used to say that American politics was still stuck in the late-night dorm-room arguments of the time.

In both style and substance, this was a contest between the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. Clinton modelled her campaign on Bill’s success in 1992: get the big donors, concentrate on winning the big states. (Bill hadn’t won Iowa, the first state to vote, therefore it wasn’t worth much of an effort.) Mark Penn, the pollster who oversaw Bill’s 1996 re-election, was hired to run Hillary’s equally poll-driven campaign. (Penn’s specialty is dividing the electorate into minuscule special-interest groups and then devising messages for each one.) Much of Clinton’s early rhetoric was about restoring the good old days of Clinton I (‘It took a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush and it will take a Clinton to clean up after the second Bush’). She abandoned it as Bill became increasingly visible and strangely choleric, bringing back memories of the less happy moments of the Clinton years and leading many to wonder whether she would be able to control him in a Hillary White House.

Obama took his experience as a grassroots organiser, and brought it into the age of the internet – a force first recognised by Howard Dean in his unsuccessful 2004 campaign. Combining the ‘50 state strategy’ that Dean, as the head of the Democratic National Committee, had devised (to the absolute derision of the Clintonistas) with the decentralised nature of the web, Obama realised that a lot of small states would provide as many delegates as a few big states and that a lot of small donors would ultimately give more money than a few big ones (who under campaign finance laws can only give so much). With a brilliant website modelled on ‘social networking hubs’ like Facebook and MySpace, and full of things to do for a generation that lives on the internet, he assembled an email list of eight or ten million names, and received donations – 90 per cent of them for less than $200, and about half for less than $100 each – from a million and a half people, giving them a sense of participation and encouraging them to engage in the actual campaigning. (He raised $55 million in February without holding a single fundraiser.) Meanwhile, he grasped the power of YouTube both for reproducing his ads and speeches and Clinton’s worst lines; these were watched by millions. Most of all, he understood that the entire country was fed up with Bush, the most unpopular president in modern American history, and that the message of ‘change’ was one that would appeal to vast numbers of voters, transcending the Clinton-Penn ‘slicing and dicing’ of the electorate, in which, for example, soybean farmers are guaranteed continued subsidies. In a decentralised world that was a macrocosm of Obama’s own history (a Kenyan-American growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia), what would bring people together were universal aspirations, communicated through the new level playing-field of the web.

The Clintons were utterly clueless about the political force of the internet – Bill doesn’t even know how to use email – and were accustomed to the era when money came from the rich, opinions were expressed by a manageable group of pundits on television and in the newspapers, and where one’s message can be controlled to some degree in the media. The web is, of course, a whole new world, with many thousands of opinion-makers, fact-checkers and amateur experts. Every statement by a politician is vetted by legions of volunteer investigative reporters of a kind that now rarely exist in the major media, and who somehow manage instantly to produce the quotes or video clips that demonstrate the candidate’s hypocrisy – as Clinton discovered when she told the tales of braving sniper fire in Bosnia or how she brought peace to Northern Ireland. Throughout the campaign, the web was reporting news that, say, the New York Times wasn’t. And the most accurate predictions for each primary were not made by any of the polling organisations, but by a blogger called Poblano, who polled no one but had devised some sort of system based on demographics and previous voting records. At the end of the race, Poblano revealed himself as a professional baseball statistician.

But the web aside, one of the surprises was how generally inept Hillary’s campaign was. She’d been planning her ascension to the throne for at least six years (and some say even before Bill became president). Believing that it was the only way a woman could be elected, she had built her image as a Thatcher-like Iron Lady, not only supporting the Iraq war, but also identifying with various military and defence issues. Assuming she would be running against the right, never imagining a challenge from the left, Clinton was not prominently identified with any progressive legislation in her six colourless years in the Senate, for fear that it would ultimately be used against her. On the contrary, she largely tried to burnish her credentials as a hardline patriot, even introducing a bill against flag-burning, though there had been only one known incident since the Vietnam War – some drunken frat boys at a party.

She started out last year with universal name recognition and a 30-point lead in the polls, convinced of her own inevitability. In December she said: ‘I’m in it for the long run. It’s not a very long run. It’ll be over by February fifth.’ That day, Super Tuesday, caught her by surprise: 22 states voted and 13 of them went for Obama. Utterly unprepared for a setback, she made the fatal mistake of playing not to her strengths but by Karl Rove rules.

Hillary is the administrator whom no one particularly likes but everyone respects for her efficiency. She is an über-policy wonk, with an encyclopedic knowledge of legislation and position papers. Tremendously articulate – and a much better debater than Obama – she can take any question thrown at her (‘What can be done about protecting the salmon fisheries of the Northwest?’) and give a detailed response. In a country tired of the sheer ineptitude of the Cheney-Bush administration – epitomised by the destruction of a major American city and the failure, still, to do anything about it (New Orleans today has half its former population) – Clinton could have won simply by demonstrating her competence, as she had in her two Senate races, winning over the largely conservative upstate New York voters.

Instead, she couldn’t stop talking about her competence, interminably reiterating her ‘ready on Day One’ mantra, as though her experiences as a presidential wife somehow made her more presidential. Worse, she went on the attack, sarcastically deriding Obama’s inspirational speeches: ‘Now, I could stand up here and say: “Let’s just get everybody together. Let’s get unified. The sky will open. The light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.”’ (She was surely the first campaigning politician to tell voters that their dreams are delusions.) She ridiculously charged Obama with plagiarism (‘change you can xerox’) over a single line in one of his speeches and tirelessly repeated that Obama knew someone who had been a member of the Weather Underground (when Obama was a child). Democratic Party regulars were appalled when she began to praise McCain at Obama’s expense: only she and McCain were ready to be commander-in-chief, or, in Bill’s formulation, only she and McCain were ‘true patriots’. Obama was a wimp – Bill called him ‘the kid’ – who wanted to talk with Ahmadinejad; Clinton would nuke and ‘obliterate’ Iran if they dared attack Israel.

Just when you thought she had hit bottom, she went even lower. She tried to cast Obama as a scary black man who, as subliminally suggested in her infamous (and mercilessly parodied) ‘3 a.m.’ ad, would break into your house and murder your cute little sleeping blonde daughter. She cast doubt on whether Obama was really a Christian and not a scary Muslim. And when that didn’t work she reinvented herself as a Woman of the People, waxing eloquent on her hunting days with Grandpa and downing shots in working-class bars, as she derided Obama – the son of a single mother on welfare – as an elitist, out of touch with the regular people she’d presumably been hanging out with all these years at Yale Law School, the Arkansas governor’s mansion, the White House and the Senate. Those regular people, she explained in one of many embarrassing moments, were ‘hard-working Americans, white Americans’.

Every time she lost a state, her minions would go on television declaring that that state (and by extension its voters) didn’t matter; bloggers began calling this the ‘insult 40-states strategy’. A victory in backwater West Virginia was hailed as a major triumph. No one in the Clinton camp ever admitted that she had remained behind in the popular vote and in the pledged (elected) delegates from the beginning, and television, of course, promoted the illusion that this would be a photo-finish to keep us all immobile before our sets.

The funniest moment came when Clinton joined McCain in proposing a summer holiday from the federal gas tax – a strictly vote-pandering gesture, especially as neither of them introduced a bill in the Senate to turn it into law. Asked about the fact that not a single economist supported the plan, Clinton, supreme commander of the position paper, replied: ‘I’m not going to put my lot in with economists . . . We’ve got to get out of this mindset where somehow elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantage the vast majority of Americans.’

In a late act of desperation, she tried to change party rules, which she had supported, that didn’t count the primaries in Florida and Michigan. Now she was comparing the vote in Florida to the abolition of slavery and the elections in Zimbabwe. In Michigan, where Obama’s name had not even appeared on the ballot, she insisted she was due all of the votes and Obama none.

And then she reached the lowest of the low, in a line that turned many superdelegates and much of the country against her. Asked in May why she hadn’t dropped out from what was so clearly a losing campaign, she answered that we shouldn’t forget that Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June on the night of the California primary, and one never knows what will happen. Quite apart from the obvious point that, in any political campaign, one does not suggest the murder of one’s opponent, Obama is clearly the most inspirational figure in American politics since Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and their fates have been very much on everyone’s mind, however unspoken.

By the end, Clinton, the candidate who had been working on this for years and whose greatest attribute was dogged competence, ended up $30 million in debt, much of it owed to small businesses, with $11 million owed to herself. (It is unclear how she will manage to pay this off, as lost causes don’t attract donors.) Obama finished with a surplus of about $30 million. Her communications director was paid $266,000 a month, his $14,000. Her staff had been in a very public civil war, leading to the dismissals of top advisers and managers; his staff had no visible internal dissension. She was the one who was supposed to have the managerial skills, Obama was the dreamer. But even Republicans are calling Obama’s the best organised campaign in memory. Some years from now, when the memoirs appear, we’ll find out exactly how he did it.

The day after the final primary and Clinton’s delusional speech, a group of her most ardent supporters from Congress staged an intervention to send her into symbolic rehab for her self-addiction. For the good of the party, she had to admit that she had lost. Three days later, she gave a speech endorsing Obama. The pundits all called it ‘gracious’, but one could see that she was not exactly warming to the task. It was strange that she didn’t once mention McCain. Perhaps, in her mind, the race had been entirely Clinton v. Obama; now that she had lost, the rest hardly mattered.

Hardcore Clinton supporters saw the race in terms of gender, and blamed her loss on the sexism of the media and of the general public. But, again, the lines of division were generational: women over 65 voted overwhelmingly for Clinton; women 40-65 were more or less split evenly; and women under 40 voted for Obama. Younger women in urban America are now better educated and earn more than younger men. They’re filling the executive positions and clearly do not believe that Clinton is their only hope of seeing a woman president.

Obama didn’t win because Clinton lost. He was, in American terms, the better candidate. I knew he’d win when I first watch-ed him on television in Iowa, for he has the quality Americans most prize in their presidential candidates: sincerity. They have voted for Republicans in seven of the last ten elections, even though they often disagreed with the Republicans on many of the specific issues and even though they were clearly voting against their own general self-interest, because the Republicans appear to mean what they say. With the exception of Bill Clinton, who had the knack of being all things to all people, the Democrats have repeatedly tried to out-Republican the Republicans and have ended up looking like hypocrites: Dukakis, a nerd riding in a tank with a helmet that was too big for him; Mr Science Al Gore, refusing to condemn the Kansas Board of Education for banning the teaching of evolution in biology courses; Kerry pathetically beginning his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention by saluting and intoning ‘Reporting for duty’. And now Hillary, the lifelong antiracist playing to racism, opposed to the war she supported, the Ivy League policy wonk denouncing elitism.

Obama, by all accounts, has remained true to his vision of grassroots organisation and politics through reconciliation; he has yet to be caught holding any contradictory positions. In a country that believes, above all, and largely to its great detriment, in individual self-reliance, he is a self-made man whose message emphasises that progress must also begin at home. Clinton, as an old-fashioned Democrat, talked of policy changes to improve education. Obama, as what has become the new-fashioned Democrat, said we must both change policy and sit down at the kitchen table and help our kids with their homework. It’s a message with enormous appeal to conservatives, and though I personally don’t meet many where I live in New York, I keep hearing stories of friends’ parents and aunts and uncles out in the heartland, solid Republicans, who are enthusiastic for Obama. The other day, a leading publicist for Christian groups said that he expects 40 per cent of evangelicals to vote for the Democrat – a startling erosion of the Republican base – for they, too, have a new generation, and one that is more tolerant on social issues.

Meanwhile, on the other side, it seems that, unless there is a cataclysmic event setting off a new round of fear, McCain doesn’t have much of a chance. He became the nominee only because the others – Romney, Giuliani, Huckabee – were, each in different ways, hopeless. He has generated little enthusiasm among Republicans: in the last two months of the primaries, after he had already won, 25 per cent of them voted against him. As Ralph Nader did to Gore in 2000, the Libertarians Bob Barr and Ron Paul will chip away Republican votes. McCain’s reputation as a ‘maverick’ on the Straight Talk Express is based on the McCain of 2000, when Bush defeated him in a vicious campaign. Now the man who attacked evangelical preachers as ‘agents of intolerance’ is begging for their support; the man who denounced the Bush tax cuts for the rich believes they are the best hope for the sinking economy; the man who had once called Bush ‘dumb as a stump’ is now seen, in photographs that have become iconic, awkwardly hugging Bush’s stomach or sharing a birthday cake with him on the very day that Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. In his first national advertisement, the ardent enthusiast for a hundred-year occupation of Iraq declares: ‘I hate war.’ His sincerity quotient, once high, will sink rapidly now that the Democratic race is over, as the media picks up on the information already provided in the blogosphere and begins to look at him more carefully. And, especially alongside Obama, he is an old man who doesn’t seem particularly wise, the hellraising good time boy who aged into a crank. If Clinton was the last candidate of the 20th century and Obama the first of the 21st century, McCain is a remnant of America in the Cold War. His hero is indeed Teddy Roosevelt; he is older than Mount Rushmore; he has never used a computer; some of his associates are already calling Obama a ‘Marxist’.

Michelle Obama, in an unguarded moment early in the campaign, said: ‘For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.’ It was an intemperate remark for a candidate’s wife, and one that will come back to haunt the general election, but there are many of us who knew exactly what she meant. I have yet to meet anyone under forty who is not an Obamamaniac. They are filling stadiums to hear him, and turning out in huge numbers to campaign and to vote with an enthusiasm for electoral politics that has not been seen in forty years. Hearing Obama’s frequently repeated, New Age-ish line, ‘We are the people we’ve been waiting for,’ it’s hard not to think that they are the people we’ve been waiting for.