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.
Ronald Reagan — whose policies were almost universally disfavored by clear majorities who nevertheless supported him — knew better. And that's perhaps why Obama's most cogent statements of the campaign, among those most distorted by critics to his right and left, have been those he made to the Reno Gazette-Journal editorial board in the interim between Iowa and New Hampshire. Obama said Reagan had "changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not." He added: "He tapped into what people were already feeling, which was, 'We want clarity, we want optimism, we want, you know, a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.'"
Needing to clarify those remarks later, after the Clinton campaign ran smear ads implying that Obama was, in fact, a Reaganite, the Illinois senator said: "Just as there were a whole lot of Reagan Democrats, we need to create a whole lot of Obama Republicans." The easier translation would have been: In the same way Reagan got a lot of nonconservatives to line up behind a conservative program, America now needs a liberal who can line up a lot of nonliberals behind him. Duh.
Which brings me to that second, much darker moment on the campaign trail. Just two weeks after that inspiring evening in Des Moines, and with Hillary Clinton rebounding after a surprise win in New Hampshire, I was standing outside a ballroom at the Mirage resort in Las Vegas on Saturday morning. Bill Clinton had already been deployed as the heavy artillery in his wife's campaign, but it was quite a surprise to see him roll right into one of the most sensitive and strategic polling places in the state, just minutes before the tiebreaker Nevada caucuses.
But there Bill was, with a light Secret Service detail (under orders to allow the masses to get snuggly close to him) and flanked by a few Hillaryland staffers, giving one of the most startling, and nauseating, performances of a political lifetime. With only a smile on his ruddy face (what in Arkansas might just be called a shit-eatin' grin), with not a trace of visible anger or irony, and while he warmly hugged and held those who flocked to greet him, the former president of the United States uncorked an open pipe of political sewage.
He flat-out accused the Obama campaign of what he called "voter suppression," claiming that the powerful Culinary Workers Union, which had endorsed Obama, was somehow now "rescheduling" and "reassigning" workers who were for Hillary. As if the union, and not the infinitely more powerful gambling megaresorts, were their employer. What else Bill Clinton said bears some extensive quoting:
"Today, when my daughter and I were wandering through the hotel, and all these culinary workers were mobbing us, telling us they didn't care what the union told them to do, they were gonna caucus for Hillary. There was a representative of the organization following along behind us, going up to everybody who said that, saying, 'If you're not gonna vote for our guy, we're gonna give you a schedule tomorrow so you can't be there.' So, is this the new politics? I haven't seen anything like that in America in 35 years."
Jon Stewart had a field day with this quote, musing about how it was possible that — in the clanging din of the Mirage casino, surrounded by security — the former president was somehow mobbed by union members, not gamblers, who were somehow congregating in the casino and telling him what he claimed they did. And then, somehow, the former president was able to hear what this "representative" of the union was telling workers in his wake. And, oh yes, he did not have sex with that woman.
Let me add that the same ex-president who, during his own career, was defeated as incumbent governor by a smear campaign, saw his congressional majority evaporate during his tenure, was accused by the Falwell-oids of mass murder, was accused by the wing nuts of killing Vince Foster and, ultimately, was impeached, now claims that these unsubstantiated acts of a hotel-workers' union using its muscle to line up votes against his wife are something he hasn't seen "anything like... in America in 35 years."
That Clinton performance alone would have been rather startling. What came next was jaw-dropping. Bill, accompanied by longtime family bagman and former Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe, then moved from the outside lobby to just inside the door of the caucus room, making sure that each voter had to pass right by him before making his or her choice for nominee. Democratic Party officials had taken pains to make sure that no partisan signage or literature was allowed inside caucus sites and that once the complicated voting process got under way, no outsiders could have contact with the caucusers.
Big Bill broke none of the ground rules but came right up to the line and lingered until the last minute, continuing to whip up support for his wife's campaign. A Democratic official on site told me that if Mr. Clinton were still inside when the caucus got going five minutes later, he would have been required to be "properly credentialed or he would have to be removed."
Clinton's presence inside the room ignited a noisy ruckus of cheers and countercheers that divided the attendees. White-T-shirted supporters of Mrs. Clinton loudly chanted "Hil-la-ry! Hil-la-ry!" while Obama supporters in red T-shirts raised their fists in the air and chanted back, "O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!" Obama supporters were outraged by Clinton's presence in the caucus room. "This is a dirty trick," Mirage-resort cook Maria Cortez said angrily. "He's the one who is trying to intimidate us. No other candidates are in here. What's he doing here? Just trying to pressure us." Another Culinary Union member, Amelia Morland, said: "Everything's changed about Clinton. He's not the man he used to be."
In his long navy-blue wool coat, McAuliffe looked like he might have just walked off the set of The Sopranos. And he sounded like it too. "We were told that any of us could come to talk to voters," he told me when I asked him if he was complying with the rules of the caucus. "We're encouraging people to vote. There is no intimidation." Funny, there was no reference to intimidation in my question.
Clinton's antics were rewarded with Hillary's edging out Obama in the Mirage caucus by about 20 votes among 350. And the scores of culinary workers who vociferously supported Mrs. Clinton seemed neither intimidated, inhibited nor restrained. Whatever supposed union intimidation there was, if any, was ineffective, as Hillary won 51 percent of the state's popular vote to Obama's 45. However, Obama may end up with more delegates, having won 11 out of 17 Nevada counties.
Bill Clinton's show at the Mirage was but the culmination of a weekful of verbal assaults and smears he leveled at Obama. As I've written before in these pages, Bill is nothing less than Hillary's Super Surrogate, freely mouthing off that nominating Obama would be "a roll of the dice," that Obama's opposition to the war is but a "fairy tale," and that Obama has revealed himself as a Reaganite.
By fortuitous circumstance, I had been in close quarters with the Clintons in Des Moines just an hour or so before the caucuses opened and when they apparently had already sensed the drubbing they were about to take. The pained looks on their faces, the heaviness that hung in the air around them was palpable. So was their determination, by any means necessary, to reverse the trend. The result has shocked even those once among the most loyal of Clintonites. Bill Clinton's former secretary of labor, Robert Reich, writing in his blog on January 24, noted his own revulsion:
I write this more out of sadness than anger. Bill Clinton's ill-tempered and ill-founded attacks on Barack Obama are doing no credit to the former President, his legacy, or his wife's campaign. Nor are they helping the Democratic Party. While it may be that all is fair in love, war, and politics, it's not fair — indeed, it's demeaning — for a former President to say things that are patently untrue (such as Obama's antiwar position is a "fairy tale") or to insinuate that Obama is injecting race into the race when the former President is himself doing it. Meanwhile, the attack ads being run in South Carolina by the Clinton camp which quote Obama as saying Republicans had all the ideas under Reagan is disingenuous.
For years, Bill Clinton and many other leading Democrats have made precisely the same point — that starting in the Reagan administration, Republicans put forth a range of new ideas while the Democrats sat on their hands. Many of these ideas were wrong-headed and dangerous, such as supply-side economics. But for too long, Democrats failed to counter with new ideas of their own; they wrongly assumed that the old Democratic positions and visions would be enough. Clinton's 1992 campaign — indeed, the entire "New Democratic" message of the 1990s — was premised on the importance of taking back the initiative from the Republicans and offering Americans a new set of ideas and principles. Now, sadly, we're witnessing a smear campaign against Obama that employs some of the worst aspects of the old politics.
My point exactly. It represents the worst that could come out of this nominating process, a popular ratification of the politics of business-as-usual. And this goes beyond transitory tactical decisions and speaks directly to the core strategy of the Clinton campaign. It's a conscious exploitation of fear, uncertainty and conventional caution, all with a markedly geriatric tinge. It's what in the good old days we used to simply call reactionary.
Indeed, Hillary Clinton's hallmark theme in this campaign is that from "day one," as she likes to say, the next president of the United States will be faced with one cataclysmic, unanticipated horror after another which only she, of course, can be counted on to successfully manage. Obama and Edwards might want to change the world, but Hillary Clinton wants to protect us against it. In a world brimming with danger and uncertainty, Hillary argues from the stump, there's no time to waste daydreaming about pie-in-the-sky promises of reform. Instead, the American people must choose a leader ready to immediately start fixing the problems that already exist, and one who is immediately ready to face the inevitable and "unpredictable" crises looming right over the horizon. And that would be Clinton.
"We know some of the challenges that await the next president," Hillary told an Iowa audience one day in early January. "But no matter how much we know, we can't possibly anticipate all the problems."
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Make no mistake — it's a message that works. Over the past few weeks, I have interviewed scores of voters on all sides of this contest. It would be foolish to generalize, but let me foolishly state that, generally speaking, the Clinton campaign attracts the less political, the less ideological, the less activist, the less educated, the more elderly and the more fearful.
There are other uncomfortable facts emerging in this contest. As I've previously noted, this is the first Democratic primary in more than a generation in which the "dreamer" as opposed to the establishment candidate has no structural disadvantage. Obama, along with Clinton, raised more preprimary money than any candidate in history, topping $100 million. He's not been excluded from any debate or denied any TV time. He no longer suffers from any lack of name recognition. Press coverage of Obama has been ample and decidedly positive (with reporters mostly abstaining from picking too much at any of the obvious sores, like his friendship with now-indicted Antoin Rezko).
There was nothing fishy about Obama's losses in New Hampshire or Nevada. He did well. Hillary did better. She got more white votes. More women's votes. And in Nevada, she outpolled Obama by more than 2 to 1 among Latinos. Then Obama staged his stunning comeback in South Carolina, crushing Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin, and while he won four out of five black votes, he picked up nearly as many white men as Clinton did. Nevertheless, we go into our own primary this week with Clinton out ahead in the polls, and the betting markets still have her at a 65-35 favorite.
If she is nominated, Democrats will have no one to blame except themselves. Many will rejoice that a woman will now be in line to become president, a radical departure from our own history — even if our core politics will have changed almost imperceptibly, if at all.