I make no bones that I am a completely committed Clinton partisan, more strongly for her with every passing day and new attack. I'm also a committed Democrat, firmly entrenched on the liberal side of the political divide. The implosion of the Obama campaign saddens me because of the loss of what could have been a political figure as fully transformative as what we originally glimpsed in this person. The last few days of news for Obama mark the end of his political career. I think he still has an even chance to take the party's nomination, but that is the end of his rise.
I have been discussing Obama's campaign with the spousal unit the last few days, reflecting on what I wrote in Blowback Ahead, and we've pondered just what we have been watching unfold over the last year. Hubby does not believe that Obama (or most of his top campaign advisors) really believe he's losing votes due to racism or that working class white voters are doing anything except voting their class interest, and thinks it's not very productive to try to discern deep philosophical stances from the cut throat world of campaign politics. It is enough to note that we can see claims of racism being deployed as a deliberate strategy, an utterly cynical exploitation of CDS (Hillary will do anything to win!) in a way that no one else is situated to do, and which would not have been to the advantage of any other candidate.
From a political analysis standpoint, I concede the argument, though I find there is evidence of certain class prejudices on Obama's part that cannot help but put forth derogatory socio-economic stereotypes simply because nice liberal creative class, humanities educated people like Obama, the Blogger Boyz, most of the Democratic Party leadership and legions of symbolic analysts like me have had that message drummed into our heads for all of our lives. "You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know... morons. " (Blazing Saddles)
That wasn't the interesting part of the discussion. What is the coalition that Obama has put together? A doughnut of the Democratic Party. One part of the ring is the extreme liberal (and not so liberal) intellectual elites and to the other is the African American community - the high priests of the party and the most tenacious and loyal of the rank and file. This is a substantial coalition, with a plurality of votes. As I said in Radical Politics, though I am impatient with my own political faction, the Stevensonians, there is no way to have a modern, effective liberal party unless you have all the players in the coalition - technocrats, working class, populists, all ethnicities, and quite a range of political temperaments. You can't have anti-democrats. Thus, every candidate running for the Democratic Party nomination needs to run as a coalition builder.
Obama originally positioned himself as the ultimate coalition builder, one who could not just unite the party, but also bring over left-leaning Republicans and Independents. While it is easy to be cynical about such things, I take this as the expression of his best impulses and inclinations, and grant him the same initial acceptance that I would want for my own candidate. I am sincere that we need to see the loss of this promise - the promise made by the candidate and the political promise embodied in him - as something tragic for the Democratic Party.
What happened to the potential on display at the 2004 convention? A decision both explicable and execrable - to accuse another Democrat of being racist. With that claim, Obama placed himself in a box that is becoming a coffin for more than just his campaign. His coalition was never enough to secure him the nomination unless he turned out super majorities within those groups. He did not have to do much with the wine track voters who enjoyed their fauxgressive rejection of Hillary, enthralled with the talking heads and blogger insider gossip. But with the AA vote, the challenge for Obama was to overcome Hillary's substantial appeal to that group. This was uniquely a problem with Hillary, as none of the other candidates enjoyed that kind of support. The weapon he chose was to smear the Clintons as racists.
Who would have thought this would be the tool employed, given the early themes of the Obama campaign? It wasn't just warm-fuzzies and unity ponies. The spousal unit was an early Obama supporter, and thought there was something really valuable to way in which Obama used a rhetoric of struggle and completion to recast race relations and the Democratic task of fulfilling the dream. I have seen it put cynically (hell, I have put it cynically myself) that Obama was just promising the (mostly white) comfortable class of the party that he wouldn't insist on looking at those nasty claims of justice if they would just elect a black dude and redeem their souls. Sure, we could, but it is better, and perhaps sustains a spark of hope in the savage rhetoric of the last few weeks, to see him as sincerely arguing the role of Joshua as our proper charge. In this reading, we have a narrative of struggle that succeeded, we have made it over the hump, we are walking into the promised land. The sacrifices of Moses are to be honored in the fulfillment of his task, and that we gratefully and joyously celebrate what we have achieved. The worst is past, we have come through the wilderness, and we will not lose our people again.
To have remained within that argument, even in the absence of more substantive and wonky offerings, would have provided a powerful and necessary force to the Democrats' claim upon the body politic. It would have built up the coalition by insisting on its common cause. The older arguments about race, as exemplified by the preaching of people like Wright, would have been rejected without being demonized. As Maya Angelou said a decade and more before - our passage has been paid for.
Instead, he chose a high stakes political strategy to maximize his constituent turnout in an attempt to remove his chief rival with a devastating and unanticipated blow, and has ended up more firmly enmeshed in one of the most divisive rhetorical modes imaginable on the left. The price Obama is paying for having reached for crude racial politics is to be joined at the hip to Wright and others like him. The speech Obama gave after the first big revelations about Wright was his last attempt to reclaim that original rhetoric, and it failed because there were no deeds to back up his words. Without deeds, there is nothing upon which to moor the call for transcendence. Today, in his brief, weary appeal to what he has written for 20 years, Obama merely ended up highlighting the shortcoming of that appeal - writing and talking are fine, but at some point you must act and embody your words. It would have meant rejecting the rhetoric of resentment presented by Wright. It would have meant refusing to use politics in that mode to build up margins. He is paying for launching the racism attacks because now he has no ground on which to stand to defend himself against older modes of race thinking and their corrosive, divisive politics. The longer the race goes on, the more he is caught in the net.
Obama is a smart man. Why did he not see this outcome? The hubby and I agreed - because there is nothing beneath the rhetoric upon which to ground it. Jesse Jackson, twenty years ago, could see and know what would happen with that language. He also knew that you had to stand for something, even when that something gave some people the heebie-jeebies. Jackson had an agenda of domestic social justice and equality and a radical transvaluation of values in foreign policy. Agree or disagree, there was never a doubt what Jackson stood for. His coalition was AAs and non-AA working class voters.
In political terms, Obama made a risky bet that has not paid off. He deliberately went negative in a way no Democrat in recent times would think to do. The New Hampshire and Nevada wins had almost ended the bump from Iowa, and something shocking had to be done, something powerful enough that it could throw Clinton out of the race before she built up momentum. Using the best state he had, Obama went for a super majority of AA votes and he got it. It was not enough.
How could he not project what the effect of that move would be on Clinton's coalition, that they would rally to her (as they had in New Hampshire) and that undecideds would break in favor of her? A very bad political miscalculation. If she could be removed quickly and not provide pushback to the argument, the strategy could be dropped and sent down the memory hole. Had it not been for CDS, it is doubtful the strategy would have been attempted. Without CDS, there was no possibility of it succeeding.
Once begun, the strategy could not be abandoned because of white attrition. Masked somewhat by the red state caucus votes and the lack of critical stories on Obama himself, it reemerged with a vengeance in Ohio and Texas, making it imperative that the campaign struggle to retain every AA vote to overcome working class backlash, which meant expanding the argument from his opponent to his opponent's supporters as well. The longer the campaign goes on, the more this strategy hurts Obama.
This raises a certain irony that for decades, the AA vote has been taken for granted by the party, simply swept up by the winner as just reward for being the nominee. This time, it is the infamous Reagan Democrats who are being taken as a given. Obama's arrogant claim that he would (of course) get all of Hillary's voters while she probably couldn't get his was originally a reference to the independents and Republican crossovers who were allegedly going to defect by droves, allowing Obama to position himself to the right of Clinton. And, now, he is fighting to retain his biggest voting block by trying to poison the ground that lies between him and the rest of the party. Sadly, I do not feel confident that AAs will simply vote Democratic, regardless of the nominee, not after this campaign.
What should have been his great strength, the coalition of wine track Dems and AA Dems, has turned into a millstone, with Obama's circle of support forcing him underwater due to their growing derision for and fear of the rest of the party - women, working class, Hispanics, elderly. The tragedy, even more for the party than for Obama, is that he might have been able to do precisely what he had originally claimed had he been able to transcend his own biases and actually do as he said he would, eschewing racking up margins and becoming the deed of his own ideals. What that would have taken would have been a willingness to risk a loss in order to win something larger than himself.
To be a Democrat, not an Obamacan.