Is it over yet? No, not yet and maybe not until the Democrats' national convention this August in Denver.
An event Monday provided context to the Democratic presidential nominating contest. It was the death at age 68 of Mildred Loving, an African American, whose marriage to Richard Loving, a Caucasian, set in motion a legal process which resulted in a 1967 Supreme Court ruling striking down laws in many states banning interracial marriage — yes, in 1967, three years after the Civil Rights Act and two years after the Voting Rights Act.
Now, some 41 years later, one Democratic presidential contender is a woman, the other a child of a black-white marriage.
Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary outcomes in North Carolina and Indiana went according to expected form. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's victory in North Carolina was driven by black voters. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton's apparent narrower win in Indiana was sparked by white women voters (I say "apparent" because, as this was written, returns from Indiana's Lake County had not yet been released. But Obama would have had to generate an improbable 30-point margin in that county to catch Clinton).
Barring some unexpected development, the nominating race will go forward through the West Virginia primary next Tuesday, the Kentucky and Oregon primaries May 20, the Puerto Rico primary June 1, and the Montana and South Dakota primaries June 3. Obama should be favored in at least three of the six, including our neighboring Oregon primary.
Then we will enter a twilight-zone period in which Sens. Obama and Clinton, both lacking sufficient delegates to win the nomination, will recruit actively among so-called "super delegates" and perhaps engage in a brutal dispute all the way to the convention regarding the seating and constitution of delegations from Michigan and Florida. Both those states' primaries were ruled invalid under national party rules and, as of now, their delegations are not recognized as official.
I cannot imagine that these two states' delegations will not be seated according to some formula worked out among the two candidates' managers and national party officials. But such disputes have remained unresolved in the past and could quite literally tear the convention apart if that is the case by August.
On two occasions during the process, preceding the New Hampshire and, then, the Ohio and Texas primaries, Obama could have forced Clinton's withdrawal with decisive victories. But he could not bring it off. Until Obama's North Carolina victory Tuesday, the political initiative and energy had rested with the Clinton campaign. Obama, thrown off his game by diversions involving his pastor and his and his wife's remarks about middle-American values, only began to regain his footing during campaigning of the past few days.
Candidates disclose themselves
The spirited Obama-Clinton competition has been expensive and draining for the candidates and taxing for Democrats hoping for an early outcome and party unity — apparently also for national media, which have been trying transparently to encourage Clinton's withdrawal since February.
But the contest has been good for voters. The competition, running across all states and regions, has given them a better measure of the candidates than they would have had in a short, decisive struggle. It also has forced Obama and Clinton to bone up on local issues and to move beyond their initial all-purpose stock speeches. This aspect has been unfortunate in one respect. Seeking support in key states and constituencies, they have fallen to pandering to local concerns on a whole range of issues.
Both candidates came into the campaign as free traders. But, during the campaign, both have become protectionists. Clinton, most recently, has joined Sen. John McCain, the putative Republican nominee, in proposing that federal gas taxes be suspended over the summer. The saving to consumers would be so small as to be meaningless while reducing highway funds and related jobs. Obama has opposed that proposal but has his own variant (and, it turns out, supported the Clinton-McCain proposal while an Illinois state senator). Cheap demagogy all around.
Both Clinton and Obama, competing for support of anti-war activists, have made Iraq pullout proposals that neither could hope to apply if elected president.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the extended campaign has been that Obama and Clinton, under fierce competitive pressure, have disclosed their characters more fully to voters than they otherwise would have. Obama has come across as the unifier he professes to be but, at the same time, as someone with a less than jugular political instinct. Clinton has deepend her image as a focused and determined campaigner who will do whatever it takes to force Obama off his game and into mistakes. Over the past few days, Bill Clinton, cut-and-slash partisan James Carville and Clinton campaign spokesmen, for instance, have pursued publicly the theme that Obama is less than manly — Carville going so far as to suggest Obama might be partially missing standard male equipment.
Why I have favored Obama
The Clintonites' smarmy tactics under pressure have reminded me why I supported Obama strongly in the first place and stood up for him at my Seattle Labor Temple precinct caucus.
Hillary Clinton is bright, tough, and does her homework. But, after successive Bush, Clinton, and Bush presidencies, it certainly is time to elect a president with another surname. President Clinton governed during a time of relative peace and prosperity. But the Clintons' never-ending-campaign political tactics have always been near or over the ethical line. They have been masters of using so-called "wedge issues" to their advantage — wedge issues being those that divide one voter group from another, seeking advantage through use of race, class, gender, age, and other factors in a highly manipulative way.
Obama may have been naive in believing that he might escape association from his 20-year pastor's inflammatory and sometimes lying rhetoric, or that he could say something in Marin County, California, which would not be heard in ethnic Pennsylvania households. But, at his core, he is not by nature a divider and manipulator. He also, significantly, is not a member of the boomer political generation, exemplified by the Clintons, which has so notably been self-involved and self-serving. He truly does represent change, and voters get it.
A Washington, D.C. friend sent me an apt e-mail the other day. It went as follows: "Hillary Clinton is running the last 20th century campaign. Barack Obama is running the first 21st century campaign. John McCain is running a 19th century campaign." There is something to it.
McCain has been obscured in recent weeks by the Obama-Clinton battle. Probably just as well for him. He has yet to establish a strong, coherent persona or campaign message — except to clutch the flag. In 2000 his entire nominating campaign against George W. Bush seemed at times to be based on his experience as a war prisoner in North Vietnam. That will not be enough in 2008. He has veered from one inconsistent, sometimes incoherent policy proposal to another in recent weeks and truly does seem to be at a loss, in particular, when it comes to economics and finance.
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