The Hindu
Thursday, January 31, 2008

The American election is the gift that keeps on giving. Normal may be just a cycle in the washing machine; there is nothing normal about this election cycle. Received wisdom is being upended as routinely as public opinion polls are. For Indians, the politics of vote banks is starting to find a disturbing echo in the primary campaign. It all makes for a riveting spectator sport.

Having listened to the folks of New Hampshire in the week before the primary, Hillary Clinton famously found her own voice. In South Carolina that voice was drowned by her husband's. The voters recoiled but it does not as yet make her history. The election of a woman or an African-American as the Democratic candidate is history-in-the-making. That sense of destiny, reinforced by the iconic Kennedy clan's endorsement of Barack Obama, has captured the international imagination as well. In an article in Sunday's New York Times evocatively titled "A president like my father," Caroline Kennedy wrote that in Mr. Obama she saw an echo of the force of inspiration that people told her they had felt with her father but she herself had never experienced. She was supporting Mr. Obama for a mix of "patriotic, political and personal" reasons that are intertwined. Touchingly, it was her children who first made her realise that Mr. Obama "is the president we need".

The "dog whistle" style of politics refers to the use of coded language addressed to a voting constituency. Like dogs who can hear a whistle too high-pitched for the human ear, they grasp the message that cannot be pinpointed in the actual text by critics. The Clintons' strategy has been to appear to be seeking the black vote in South Carolina where Africa-Americans make up half the Democratic constituency, lose it, and then benefit from the white and Latino backlash in the rest of the country. The more that Bill Clinton appealed to black voters to back his wife and the more they spurned her, the more he hoped to succeed in turning the election into one on race, to Mr. Obama's ultimate loss. For example, Sergio Bendixen from the Clinton campaign was quoted as saying "The Hispanic voter has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates." In the debate on January 15, Tim Russert of the NBC read out the quote to Clinton who, rather than repudiate it, responded that Mr. Bendixen "was making a historical statement."

But the decisive 55:27 per cent margin of victory in South Carolina undercut this strategy of marginalising Mr. Obama as merely a candidate of black America. Unlike Jesse Jackson in the 1980s, Mr. Obama has successfully transcended racial identity to appeal to all Americans. He lost to Hillary among white women; he held his own with her among white men; and he outpolled her among white youth. She lost the black male and female vote decisively. Hence Mr. Obama's tribute to the diversity of his coalition.

The tawdry final week of South Carolina brought too many painful reminders of how the Clintons soil almost everything they touch. For the first time, with vintage Clinton tactics turned against one of their own, many Democrats began to "get" why the Clintons provoke so much hatred from the Republicans. Thus said William Greider in The Nation - the bastion of left-liberal journalism in America: "The Clintons play dirty when they feel threatened ... High-minded and self-important on the surface, smarmily duplicitous underneath, meanwhile jabbing hard to the groin area" (January 23). Many others have picked up on the theme of the Clintons as self-pitying narcissists who will try every trick to destroy anyone impertinent enough to stand between them and the White House.

The good that Bill Clinton did was real - as his admirers ask, which part of his double legacy do you not understand, "peace" or prosperity" - but belongs to the 1990s. The damage that he might cause from this point on is considerable. He has belittled and denigrated Mr. Obama, brushing aside the early, principled and consistent opposition to the Iraq war as a fairytale. He warned the people of Iowa against rolling the dice by choosing Mr. Obama. If that was a gamble on the unknown, columnist Maureen Dowd commented caustically, voting for Hillary would guarantee an endless rerun of the Clinton soap opera in the White House. Bill Clinton has snarled and wagged his fingers angrily at reporters, thereby ensuring a hostile press.

Most tellingly, he delivered his wife's concession speech in South Carolina to underline the reality of a co-candidacy. This too has had several deleterious consequences for the Hillary campaign, starting with seeking to garner the women's vote by relying on her husband. Why would an avowed feminist be accompanied by her husband during the selection process? Is he taking directions from her or out of control - an attack dog that has jumped the leash? Uncomfortable pundits are debating the constitutional nuances of a co-presidency. Bill's active and very visible intrusion into the campaign reopens, legitimately, all the old unanswered questions about past scandals and raises fresh ones about his activities and financial links since he left office. A double-headed Clinton candidacy would energise the Republican base while demotivating the Democrats.

When Mr. Clinton came on the giant TV screens to make the concession speech, the Obama crowd started booing. This would have been unthinkable a month ago against an icon of the Democratic Party. At worst they would have applauded politely. His roll of the dice risks diminishing his reputation in the party and nation, damaging his wife's primary campaign, destroying his party's electoral prospects, and fracturing the country along racial lines. Some legacy.

Mr. Obama's victory speech was another rousing oration that dipped deep into the wellsprings of hope, optimism and unity. There were also flashes of hard-edged anger, condemning those who will say and do anything to win, denouncing those who are so partisan that they will demonise any crediting of ideas to a Republican, and rejecting all attempts to file candidates and voters into ethnic and gender boxes. He has emerged a stronger and tougher candidate after the ructions of South Carolina.

Parts of the Democratic establishment have begun to challenge Mr. Clinton for playing fast and loose with the truth and engaging in wedge politics based on ethnicity. Senator John Kerry, the original victim of "swiftboating" in the last election, has sharply criticised the Clintons for their fear and smear tactics, saying "being an ex-President does not give you licence to abuse the truth." Others have bemoaned conduct unbecoming a former President. Senator Edward Kennedy was so incensed that he had an angry exchange with Mr. Clinton on the phone. Abandoning his customary neutrality among Democratic primary contestants, on Monday, in a poignant passing of the torch, he endorsed Mr. Obama and promised to campaign aggressively for him.

Delivered among several thousand screaming supporters at the American University in the nation's capital, the endorsement packed a powerful rhetorical and emotional one-two punch of its own. Introduced by his niece Caroline and joined by his son Representative Patrick, who too endorsed Mr. Obama, the patriarch affirmed the centrepiece of the Obama campaign: it was time to embrace the vision of an America united in hope and bonded in a common dream by a person who refuses to be trapped in the patterns of the past, will unify the nation and heal its wounds.

The Kennedy endorsement

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This wraps Mr. Obama in the aura and mystique of the Kennedy legend, opens doors and brings connections. The weight of the Kennedy endorsement will resonate in the Democratic base, among liberals, unionised workers, blacks and Hispanics. It is a powerful repudiation of the core Clinton theme of Mr. Obama's unreliability based on inexperience. The Kennedys are the ultimate metaphors for change, vitality, youthful excitement and Democratic legitimacy. The national press will run the story for days leading to Super Tuesday. The Kennedy entourage will ensure fevered local press coverage wherever he campaigns for Mr. Obama. It may also tip other would-be supporters into endorsing Mr. Obama openly without worrying about retaliation from the feared Clinton machine.

Sustaining the momentum, also on Monday Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, who in 1998 memorably described Bill Clinton as "our first black president," endorsed Mr. Obama as "the man for this time".

Mr. Obama has reframed the contest in terms of the past versus the future and the choice between status quo and change. He has caught the momentum and the surge makes it prudent to discount her significant national lead in the polls. We may get a decisive outcome on February 5 when 22 States, including the biggest, hold their primary. Or we may have to wait until the convention in Denver in late August as it becomes a delegate-by-delegate dogfight.

In the meantime, the incumbent struggles to make his final State of the Union address heard above the din of the primaries. To all intents and purposes, the American people have already turned the page on his presidency and are eager to begin a new chapter.

Amen.

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 and/or International Board of Governors.