By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Treading the Democratic campaign trail this past year from Carson City to Seattle, from Phoenix to Albuquerque, and then this frenetic month from Iowa to Nevada and now back to California, I witnessed two truly extraordinary moments, two incidents that have forever been etched into my memory.
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Each one encapsulated, respectively, the very best and the very worst that can come of this primary season — a nominating campaign that now seems almost destined to conclude next week when Californians, and voters in more than 20 other states, go to the polls on Tsunami Tuesday.
When the ballots are tallied that night, and the nominee is almost certainly crowned, we will then know precisely what kind of future rank-and-file Democrats have willfully voted for. Will they have ventured into at least relatively uncharted territory that could stretch, if not exactly snap, the prevailing political paradigm of the past two decades? Or will they quietly slip into the comfort of familiarity and predictability, content only to oust the Bush administration from office and then snooze through the next four — or eight — years? Will they go with Obama? Or with Clinton? Or, better said, with the Clintons?
The first extraordinary moment vividly exploded at exactly 6:30 p.m. on January 4 and rattled through the entire state of Iowa like a veritable political earthquake. I was standing outside the doors of Roosevelt High School in Des Moines when it hit.
A visible groundswell of Democrats responding to Barack Obama's and John Edwards' calls for "hope" and "change," respectively, stalled the vaunted, fine-tuned Clinton electoral machine and foiled what so many had thought was her inevitable victory in the primary's first-caucus state.
The enormous institutional and organizational power of the New York senator's campaign — ranging from a laundry list of endorsements by elected officials, to the celebrity clout of Bill Clinton, to a brigade of hundreds of snow-shovelers who cleared the driveways of elderly caucus goers — wasn't enough to overcome the emotional draw of a new political dynamic that seemed to turbocharge the Obama campaign.
Standing there with a couple of other reporters in the marrow-freezing cold, I was as amazed as everybody else to see the long lines of caucusers, the shortage of registration forms for first-timers — and for those switching registration from Republican to Democrat — and the standing-room-only crowds inside the half-dozen caucus rooms.
All of the pent-up impatience, frustration, fear and contempt simmering among Democrats during these past seven years of the Bush White House seemed to burst forth all at once. You didn't need a Harris Poll to tell you, as a recent one just did, that four out of five Americans are unhappy with the path America is on. There they were standing in front of us, more than ready to brave the cold, the lines, the confusion, to literally stand up for an alternative.
Earlier in the week, the most meticulous of pollsters had predicted that Obama might indeed win, but only if the anticipated, swollen turnout of 180,000 Democrats materialized (compared with the 120,000 of 2004). Everyone got it wrong. Almost 225,000 showed up, overwhelming the system.
On caucus day, at a high school hosting the Precinct Nine vote, bundled-up Iowans waited patiently in line as the poll workers were overcome by the sheer scope of the turnout. Then, as the 125 Iowans dispersed into separate groups supporting different candidates, a clearly visible generation gap slashed the room.
On the right side of the high school classroom sat about 40 mostly white-haired and subdued Clinton adherents. A mixed group of about 25 Edwards supporters took the middle. On the left side of the room, about 60 decidedly younger, boisterous and ramped-up Obama supporters gathered in noisy clumps. "I've never caucused before but I like everything Obama has to say," said 30-year-old machinist Chris Augustine. Typical of exactly the kind of voter the Obama campaign had hoped to mobilize, he added: "For me, Obama is the un-politician. If it comes down to Hillary Clinton versus a Republican in November, I would rather vote for the Republican. There's nothing Clinton could do to prove she's really different than the same old same old of the past."
Inside this one sound bite resided all the epoch-changing, transformative potential that Barack Obama has tapped into. I, for one, was convinced and had so written at the time, that the historic period of Reagan/Bush had closed out during the Katrina catastrophe. It was only a matter of someone, or some movement, surging upward to definitively flush the system. Just because a system or a mindset has collapsed from within doesn't mean it will be replaced. There has to be something there to replace it with. That bitterly cold night in Iowa, you could see the glimmer.
One can argue the nuances and even the contradictions of Obama's policy stands and voting record. There's plenty to hesitantly chew on, from his ambiguity on nuclear power to his votes on bankruptcy legislation to whether or not he's right about not mandating purchase of so-far-mythical health care coverage. But to get too deep into that discussion, you'd have to believe that voters actually vote on the issues.