It was one of those poignant moments that come but rarely in politics. On the Monday following Barack Obama's epic victory in the South Carolina primary, in front of about 7,000 adoring and delirious fans, Ted Kennedy crowned him heir apparent to Camelot. The sense of destiny has captured the international imagination as well. Yet Obama's coronation was at the cost of the campaign for the restoration of the Clintons to the White House.
The U.S. 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. It all makes for a riveting spectator sport.
In an article in Sunday's New York Times evocatively titled "A president like my father," Caroline Kennedy, the intensely private daughter of the slain icon, wrote that in Obama she saw an echo of the force of inspiration that people told her they had felt with her father, but which she herself had never experienced. She was supporting Obama for a mix of "patriotic, political and personal" reasons that are intertwined. Touchingly, it was her children who first made her realize that Obama "is the president we need."
In South Carolina, the Clintons resorted to the "dog whistle" style of politics where coded language is used to send messages to the target voting audience while retaining deniability on the actual text if challenged. Their strategy was to appear to be seeking the black vote in South Carolina where African-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 Obama's ultimate loss.
On the one hand, the decisive 55 percent to 27 percent margin of victory in South Carolina undercut this strategy of marginalizing Obama as merely a candidate of black America. Unlike Jesse Jackson in the 1980s, 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 Obama's tribute to the diversity of his coalition.
On the other hand, 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. Many commentators picked up on the theme of the Clintons as self-pitying narcissists who will employ 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 these achievements belong to the 1990s. The damage that he might cause from this point on is considerable. If a vote for Obama is a roll of the dice on the unknown, voting for Hillary would guarantee an endless rerun of the Clinton soap opera in the White House. Even the venerable New York Times and The Washington Post have given respectability to the term "Billary" on their opinion pages.
On Saturday night Bill delivered Hillary's concession speech to underline the reality of a co-candidacy and raise many questions. Why would an avowed feminist seeking the highest office in the land be accompanied by her husband during the selection process? Is he taking directions from her or is he out of control--an attack dog that has slipped the leash? What are the constitutional nuances of a copresidency? 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 energize the Republican base while demotivating the Democrats.
Members of the Democratic establishment have begun to challenge Clinton for playing fast and loose with the truth and engaging in wedge politics based on ethnicity. Sen. John Kerry, the original victim of "swiftboating" in the last election, has sharply criticized the Clintons for their fear and smear tactics, saying "being an ex-president does not give you license to abuse the truth." Others have bemoaned conduct unbecoming a former president. Sen. Edward Kennedy was so incensed that he had an angry exchange with Bill Clinton on the phone as the prelude to endorsing Obama as the candidate who refuses to be trapped in the patterns of the past, will unify the nation and heal its wounds.
This wraps Obama in the aura and mystique of the Kennedy legend, and opens doors and connections. Obama has reframed the contest in terms of the past versus the future and the choice between the status quo and change. The weight of the Kennedy endorsement will resonate in the Democratic base, among liberals, unionized workers, blacks and Hispanics. It is a powerful repudiation of the core Clinton theme of Obama's unreliability based on inexperience. 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 Obama. It may also tip other would-be supporters into endorsing Obama openly without worrying about retaliation from the feared Clinton machine.
Yet the Clintons, tough survivors and seasoned campaigners, will fight to prevent one week's setbacks turning 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. To regain poise and momentum, Hillary will have to lift her game and offer her own considerable transformative potential to voters instead of subcontracting her husband to drag Obama down into the destructive politics of race-based divide-and-rule. Bill Clinton's 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.
The Democratic Party has a real contest on its hands and not the inevitable coronation of Hillary Clinton as the polls had proclaimed a mere two months ago. We may get a decisive outcome on Tuesday when 22 states, including the biggest, hold their primary. Or we may have to wait until the convention in Denver, Colo., in late August as it becomes a delegate-by-delegate dogfight.
In the meantime, the incumbent struggled 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.