Clinton: Not Exactly The Great White Hope

Were Hillary Clinton the great rural white savior that her campaign is depicting, she would have had this thing wrapped up in, say, Iowa, or a couple of weeks after that. Her inability to dispatch a presidential neophyte such as Barack Obama in a Democratic primary is precisely because, after alienating African-American voters beyond her comprehension, she wasn't able to convince white voters in places from Virginia to Idaho that she could be trusted to lead the country.

How did Obama, who easily won Minnesota, North Dakota and Nebraska, among many predominantly white states, suddenly become the black candidate who can't win white votes except for those of effete urbanites? Another successful Clinton spin tour-de-force, enabled by mainstream media's inability to conduct the most basic analysis, and its enjoyment at being bullied by the Clinton campaign into reporting the opposite of anything that is logical or true.

Ohio and Pennsylvania did not demonstrate her strength among white voters in general, but it did show that both states are rich in the demographics that make up Clinton's shrinking base. She found a way to exploit the anxieties of older white people in places that have been economically depressed and deeply segregated for decades. Every white person not voting for Obama isn't racist, but in Pennsylvania, for instance, at least three-quarters of Clinton's overall margin was provided by white voters who said that the candidates' race was important to them. Clinton found a chillingly receptive audience for her message of fear of Muslims, Japan (you know a candidate isn't targeting 30 year-olds when Pearl Harbor is central to their advertising), China, San Francisco, and black preachers, but ultimately it has proven a limited market, which should provide some comfort for Obama going into the fall.

Both Ohio and Pennsylvania still count in a general election, although they will matter less in 2012 after the next census once again depletes their electoral votes. However, to base an entire general election strategy on winning these states, as Clinton is obliged to imply, is complete folly, especially if it means discarding the opportunity for success in entire regions, including the West and the South. Clinton would do marginally better in November than Obama in Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to recent polling (he is in a tie with John McCain; she wins by a small margin). However, she would be completely overwhelmed in a whole series of states growing in importance and which Obama would at the very least make competitive. In Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, Alaska, Indiana and Nevada, for instance, he either beats McCain or is in a statistical tie.

Clinton has long been perceived as unelectable because half the voting population would not cast a ballot for her under any circumstance. This used to be an unfair assessment, as her husband demonstrated by winning with 43% of the vote in 1992, and George W. Bush did with 48% in 2000. In recent months, however, this presumed inelectability has come to pass, as attitudes towards Clinton have hardened and deteriorated to the point that 60% of Americans find her dishonest and untrustworthy. This number should matter to superdelegates at least as much as pledged delegate counts: you cannot under any circumstance win the presidency when 60% of voters don't trust you. In fact, as Clinton is demonstrating, you cannot win the Democratic primary when 4 in 10 Democrats don't trust you. And, as a Democrat, you cannot win either contest when the Democratic party's most important core constituency, African-Americans, feels under assault by your campaign.

The new consensus is that an artificially prolonged campaign is good for the Democratic party and good for Obama (in that order). This is absurd, as, week by week, supporters of Clinton become less likely to vote for Obama in the general election, riled up by her campaign's storm of destructive marketing. That the Republican party would resort to the same tactics in the general election is a given, but that would have been more likely to unite core Democrats against John McCain than to turn them against one another. This will be Obama's challenge, one that he is remarkably well-equipped to meet, but one that is growing steeper daily, mostly because of Clinton's scorched-earth strategy.

In the meanwhile, the unbearable weakness of uncommitted Democratic superdelegates, who have the ability to end this unnecessary bloodbath, will come back to haunt them and they will pay the price for divisions that will not disappear in a matter of months, no matter what the party's scared but still condescending leaders say. It has never bothered them previously to end a primary contest before "every voter has had their say;" in fact most of them do their very best to avoid any kind of primary uncertainty, usually in the name of party unity and to avoid depleting funds. Nor did Hillary or Bill Clinton find it necessary to face primary candidates in his 1996 reelection campaign and in both her Senate runs. So why start now? Probably for the same reason that the popular vote mattered last year, then didn't matter, then perhaps matters again; that delegate counts mattered in January but not in April; that caucuses mattered in August but not in January; that black voters mattered until they didn't; that young people never mattered; that most states in the Midwest don't matter, except for Ohio; and that, most recently, MoveOn doesn't matter (actually MoveOn is the enemy). Because the Clintons say so.

Of course, ultimately, what matters to the Clintons is the Clintons. This is not unnatural, but it is also the reason why they have become so intensely out of touch. Of course, amassing a $100 million fortune while ostensibly in public service is not the best way to keep your pulse on everyday people's problems, but even by the standards of a wealthy, insulated political class, the Clintons are having a terrible time getting it right. She can throw back a shot of Crown Royal, he can talk about what a "hoot" Obama is, but over the past three or four months they have shown how out of touch they are with the mood of much of the country. In the process they, especially Bill, have succeeded in throwing away a shockingly large amount of goodwill in a shockingly short period of time, leaving them with a smaller and smaller group of followers, to whom they try to appeal with increasingly strident, dissonant, coded messages of exclusion, fear and hatred. This, ultimately, simply accelerates the process of disaffection and means that we will be spared a Clinton dynasty. Hopefully, it won't mean we will be denied a Democratic presidency.