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Ottawa Citizen
Thursday, January 31, 2008

Having listened to the folks of New Hampshire in the final week before the primary, Hillary Clinton famously said she found her own voice. In South Carolina her voice was drowned by her husband's bark which frightened the voters. But it does not make her history. The Democratic primary is history in the making. The sense of destiny was reinforced by Caroline Kennedy's evocative endorsement of Barack Obama in Sunday's New York Times ("A president like my father") and Edward Kennedy's heavyweight endorsement on Monday.

Yet the Clintons, tough survivors and seasoned campaigners, won't let one week's setbacks turn into a lifelong ambition's meltdown. They will remind the faithful of how they have bested the Republicans in every single contest to date. The party's yearning for a Democrat to reoccupy the White House is no less intense than theirs.

There is a symmetry to the four results so far. To begin with, public opinion polls and the media had been proclaiming a coronation: of Ms. Clinton before Iowa and Mr. Obama after. Instead the people have delivered sharp rebukes to the pundits as well as the candidates: we want a contest, not a coronation. Don't tell us how we are going to vote, especially if we ourselves haven't made up our minds yet. The epic scale of Mr. Obama's triumph in South Carolina caught everyone off guard, with initial relief in his camp giving way to elation and euphoria and causing soul searching in the rival camp on tactics as well as the central message.

It would have been a negation of democracy if the two parties' presidential candidates had been chosen by a tiny percentage of the eligible voters. It's OK for the first few events to influence and shape the campaign for the nominations but not to determine the outcome. The process could go all the way to the convention in Denver in late August. The people get to choose the party's standard bearers.

This is in sharp and joyous contrast to the parliamentary system -- including Australia, Canada, India and Japan -- where the party can remove a prime minister, who may have led them to success at the polls, with someone else solely through internal party decisions. In Britain, the Labour party was led to triumph by Tony Blair but the prime minister today is Gordon Brown, who is yet to be voted on by the people. America's is the more openly democratic process.

A fiercely fought contest between Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton will have a doubly beneficial consequence. It will expose weaknesses and vulnerabilities during the primary stage itself, rather than have the candidate implode during the election campaign against the Republican opponent. This happened with John Kerry in the last election when he was belittled mercilessly, unfairly but successfully and a new word entered the political lexicon: "swiftboating." In South Carolina, Mr. Kerry accused Bill and Hillary Clinton of resorting to the same fear and smear tactics against Mr. Obama, which in the end rebounded badly on them.

Secondly, it will toughen up both candidates, make them battle hardened and far better prepared against everything that the Republican party will throw at them. In Hillary's words, it will leave the eventual candidate truly tested and vetted. Even his supporters concluded that Mr. Obama has emerged a stronger candidate after the ructions of South Carolina.

With John Edwards dropping out yesterday, the Democratic party looks set to have either a black man or a woman as its presidential standard bearer. Thus the campaign has broken through the two profound taboos of race and gender. Unlike Jesse Jackson who was the candidate for president of black America, and despite all dog whistling attempts by the Clintons to frame his candidacy in racial terms, Mr. Obama has successfully transcended racial identity to be the first viable black candidate for president of all Americans.

It's already a historic outcome. The true destination of a discrimination-free world is when we vote on candidates without thought to their race, religion or gender. Increasingly, the problem that many Americans have with Hillary Clinton is not with her first but with her last name. Mr. Obama challenges them to vote on grounds of performance, personality and promise; their respective competence (the prose that informs) and competing visions (the poetry that inspires).

A nagging worry always is how so many presidents end up making their predecessor look good in retrospect. The final tawdry week of South Carolina brought too many painful reminders of how the Clintons soiled almost everything they touched and turned the White House into an endless soap opera. Hence the popular epithet "Billary" that has been given respectability in the op-ed columns of the New York Times and the Washington Post.

My abiding memory of those who protest about the United States is the placard that read "Yankee go home - and take me with you!" A long-time admirer of America, I have been profoundly dismayed and distressed at the worldwide collapse of U.S. reputation and moral authority under the Bush administration. With Mr. Obama - and also with Ms. Clinton if she were to lift her game and offer her own considerable transformative potential to voters - America can come home to its founding values and begin to restore the aura and allure of the city on the hill. That is what has captured the world's imagination and, if realized, will be cause enough for celebration.


About the Author

Ramesh Thakur, former CIGI Distinguished Fellow

The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.