"This election, which once elated me, is starting to depress me." That's what a friend of mine, an Obama supporter, wrote in connection with Samantha Power's resignation over calling Hillary a "monster". Whatever advantage the Clinton campaign may have gained out of this incident, it should be very careful not to destroy the excitement and elation that the Obama campaign has generated to date. A winning Democratic ticket in November has to be a ticket that harnesses both hope and hard work.
It is perfectly legitimate for voters to look hard at whether Barack Obama is ready to be commander-in-chief, and for the Clinton campaign to pounce on gaffes made by Obama's advisers. That's exactly what "experience" means -- it's making mistakes and learning from them. By that definition, it is inevitable that Obama's campaign will make these mistakes the first time out, and the Clinton folks can legitimately ask people to think about what inexperience will mean in the general election and in foreign policy as president.
But if the elation goes out of this campaign, our entire political process will lose, regardless which candidate eventually wins the nomination. Barack Obama has done something absolutely extraordinary in American politics, something that Hillary Clinton should be praising and honoring. He has convinced millions of Americans to regain their confidence in American democracy, in the possibility of actually governing ourselves. "Yes we can" echoes the can-do spirit that Americans used to assume was our birthright, overcoming the image of a flailing and declining superpower.
I see this phenomenon from the unique perspective of spending a year living in China and traveling to other parts of Asia. One of the things that strikes all Western visitors here is the degree to which Chinese, the Singaporeans, the Vietnamese and others exude confidence in their newfound ability to do anything the West can do and to develop their societies faster than any countries in history. When we got here, I was constantly contrasting this confidence with the malaise and sense of misdirection that has prevailed in the U.S. over the past five years. All that changed when Obama started gaining steam. We all - Americans and Asians alike -- started watching a vibrant race between two historic and remarkable candidates, a race bringing huge numbers of Americans out to vote and resonating with speeches that reminded Americans everywhere of why we are proud to be Americans.
That surging, powerful sense of American possibility flows from the combination of what Obama and Clinton bring to the table. Taken together, they paint a portrait of inspiration and perspiration, values and interests, the politics of hope and the politics of achievement. The parable of Samantha Power offers a perfect illustration. Power is a brilliant journalist and author, a powerful moral voice, a foreign policy adviser who thinks outside the box. Her presence has been part of the appeal and the unorthodoxy of the Obama campaign. But she is also a creative free spirit who is used to speaking her mind, which in professional politics can mean a loose canon. Winning elections requires the discipline of a professional team that has learned from experience. Kerry, after all, lost his substantial lead by not responding to and silencing the "swiftboaters", a mistake that the Clinton team will never make.
The Democrats' task in the coming months is to harness a combination of both old and new politics. David Brooks is wrong to say that Obama is lost if he strays from the politics of unity and hope; on the contrary, to win the nomination and demonstrate that he can win in November he has to be tough enough and savvy enough to close the deal with skeptical constituencies who have seen too many speeches end in broken promises. But Clinton must also demonstrate that she can offer more than a mastery of partisan in-fighting; that she represents not "the Clintons" but rather a politics of tough, passionate commitment to the issues that she is running on. The candidate who succeeds in mastering this combination deserves the nomination. If neither candidate can do it on their own, then they should share the ticket.
If Clinton and Obama instead insist on trying to force voters to choose between what is essentially a false dichotomy between two styles of politics, rather than choosing the candidate who can win in November, they will lose the election. They will also lose the opportunity to reinvent America on the world stage, to carry out not a military surge, but a moral surge - forswearing torture, taking responsibility for our environment, and vindicating the rights of all human beings to education, healthcare, and a chance of a better life. And they will lose the new generation of Americans who are most interconnected with their peers around the world and most able to define and create a new America.
The ball is in Hillary's court, as the most recent winner. She needs to make clear that although she is going to fight for her candidacy, she holds some values dearer even than winning, such as religious and racial tolerance and party loyalty. She too can be part of a new politics, simply by rejecting the worst excesses of Clinton- and Rove-style campaigning. She can be both the Hillary of the end of the Texas debate, when she said, sincerely, that it was an honor to be on the same stage with Obama, and the Hillary of the red phone ad, which asks voters a perfectly fair question. But she cannot elevate McCain over Obama, nor play on racial or religious prejudice to bring voters to her side.
Obama, for his part, should remind his supporters that there is nothing monstrous about fighting hard to win. What Democrats need most is a candidate who can beat McCain, and for all the passion and energy that Obama brings to race, that question has not been fully answered. Obama and his supporters must respect the need of voters to examine the downsides as well as the upsides of their candidates. Ironically, he has to convince many voters that his administration will not be a re-run of the first two years of Bill Clinton's administration, when he and his staff were all too often learning on the job. But it's equally fair for Obama to question Hillary's ability to bring the party and ultimately the country together.
It's a high-wire act for both candidates. But if they pull it off, they can keep the elation in the race and bring it to a successful conclusion for the Democrats, no matter how long it takes. If they fail, they will have failed the country as well as the party.