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A Taste Of Denver: Thank God It’s Over (6)

September 5, 2008


Some Thoughts On How Obama Beat Hillary Clinton

Lost in the shuffle – and the struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party presidential nomination – is the fact that one of the two major American political parties has just nominated the first Black candidate for the presidency in American history. If Obama wins, he, his wife and two children will come to occupy a residence built almost entirely by slave labor, the appropriately named `White House’.

While the United States remains a nation based on a foundation of racial and ethnic discrimination that remains a thorny presence in American life, Obama’s achievement of winning the Democratic nomination is both a statement how far the nation has come and a symbol of the social struggle that remains to be completed. Among the things the United States might offer to the global community some day – is an example of how a nation – all of us, white, black, brown, red and everything in between overcame a powerful heritage of discrimination. We’re not there yet – far from it – but we’re on our way.

Whatever his political limitations – especially where it concerns the degree to which Obama has bought into the Bush Middle East foreign policy – Barack Obama successfully captured the political imagination of the majority of the Democratic Party – and much of the country. It remains to be seen whether he’ll have enough momentum to win the presidency against what is certain to be yet another Republican presidential bid based upon fear and militarism. So much of the country’s progressive energy went into supporting Obama – from the unions, peace groups, minorities that the opposition outside the Democratic Party found itself generally marginalized.
This was especially true after Super Tuesday when it appeared that Obama actually had a chance to successfully challenge Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Slips, Bill Blows His Top

What are the factors that can explain Obama’s dramatic triumph over Hillary Clinton?

The Clintons – both Bill and Hillary – h ad prepared for a Hillary run at the presidency for nearly a decade. They appeared to hold most of the cards in the Democratic deck in their hands. Hillary had won over the support of the Democratic Party machine (there is such a thing) nationwide. She had collected an enormous war chest and of course had the close cooperation of one of the country’s shrewdest political operatives of modern times in her husband. As recently as a year ago she appeared un-stoppable.

There were some key elements to Hillary’s decline and Obama’s `ascent’.

1. The mood of the country – and most particularly of the base of the Democratic Party – had shifted dramatically over the past eight years. It amounted to a nationwide grassroots revolt against the Bush policies (while Democrats in the Congress continued to vote for many Bush initiatives). On the top of the list of issues propelling this revolt was opposition to the war in Iraq, to Bush Administration practices endorsing and extending the use of torture, concern about the consequences of the Patriot Act on Civil Rights, and more and more in the later years of the Bush Presidency, the erosion of the economy.

The Clintons failed to take these shifts enough into account and when they finally did (in the areas that they did) it was too late. The prime example: Hillary Clinton never publicly came out against the Bush Administration led invasion of Iraq. She could not shake her image as a supporter of the war (in part because she is) while Obama – whose record on the war was not exactly stellar either – was able to claim that at the outset he voted against the war.

2. Although the general line of the Democratic Party – defined to a great extent by the Democratic Leadership Council – has remained surprisingly consistent over the past 20 years – there have been – as a result of largely of pressure from below and two failed presidential bids (Gore, Kerry) – some important changes in the leadership of the Democratic Party itself which gave Obama an opening. Specifically, when Howard Dean became party chair and shifted the party’s focus to extending the party’s base in 50 states, it gave Obama a chance to tap into the new elements joining the party, particularly youth. In a like manner, Obama learned from Dean’s 2004 presidential run, and most especially, Dean’s use of the internet for fund-raising. On this front from the very outset, Obama’s campaign left Hillary’s far behind in the dust.

One other `technically related development’ that seems to have hurt Hillary Clinton. There was no `YouTube’ in 2004, or hardly. But in this campaign people with fancy cell phones or digital video cameras could film campaign incidents and minutes later post them on the internet for tens of thousands (or more) people to instantly see. This undermined Bill Clinton’s credibility. Bill Clinton has reputation for a very short fuse behind the scenes and often blows up. In 2004 he could do this – let’s say in Atlanta – and the impact did not go beyond local media sources. But with YouTube the whole nation could see his temper tantrums in Boston, Buffalo, Pittsburg, Cleveland, Chicago, Omaha, Oklahoma City, Steamboat Springs and Elko Nevada in a matter of simultaneously. And the man looked out of control. And he looked out of control because he was out of control.

Clinton’s Underestimate Obama

3. As important, the Clintons and the Democratic Party leadership serious under-estimated Obama’s poise and political sophistication. Bill Clinton has met his strategizing match in Barack Obama. Obama was able to maneuver deftly through the Democratic Party minefield of corporate interests, unions, AIPAC, Black and Chicano caucuses. It was this quality as well as his considerable oratory abilities that was key. In the end it was a primary battle between the Democratic Party’s old guard and established politicians and operatives against the party’s rebels and new elements. In such contests, the old guard wins 9 times out of 10, maybe more. Barack Obama had just enough support and political savvy to sneak through and defeat Hillary. It wasn’t by much.

Coming into the Denver convention, Obama had several goals, among the main ones:

1. Neutralize the Clintons and unite the party around his candidacy.
2. Define his agenda to the nation
3. Begin a clear and unambiguous counter offensive against John McCain.

He appears to have achieved all three. Although he gave the Clinton’s a role in the convention, he chose Joe Biden as his vice presidential running mate (rather than Hillary or several others the Clinton’s had suggested). This was also something of a blow to the Democratic Leadership Council as well. If Obama wins the election he will replace Bill Clinton as what one might consider to be the primary voice of the Democratic Party in the nation. Clinton’s bitterness at being so sidelined is palpable.

Concerning Obama’s agenda, it is a clear break in both tone and content from the legacy of the Bush Administration, especially on domestic policy. Expect an Obama presidency to move quickly on two domestic issues – health care (his healthcare program more or less) and legislation making it easier for unions to organize. We can also anticipate a change in tone, an administration less willing to be the handmaiden of the financial, military and corporate sectors (these sectors might get taxed a bit more).

It is in the foreign policy arena that his policies have been the most disappointing, and we can expect little progress on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking or a new more tempered policy towards Iran (although it is not clear that Obama would want to bomb Iran the way that the Bush Administration would like to). Still we can expect more cooperation between an Obama Administration and traditional US allies – Europe, Japan etc and perhaps a break on the Bush slide into renewing the Cold War with Russia. There are indications he’ll move in the direction of signing the Kyoto Protocols on the environment.

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