Ramesh Thakur

Hillary insists that she will fight on all the way to the convention floor if necessary. She may do so just to ensure Barack Obama’s defeat if she doesn’t get the nomination.

Recently, Senator Barack Obama delivered yet another deeply historical and reflective speech on the economy. Because the regulatory instruments had not kept pace with the new economy, he argued, pain had trickled up from Main Street to Wall Street ruled only by the ethic of greed. The market’s invisible hand must continue to be guided by a higher principle that balances self-interest with community interest and prevents special interests from putting their thumbs on the nation’s economic scales. He connected the dots between financial deregulation and meltdown, declining job security, shrinking economic opportunity, and rising power of the Wall Street and influence of special interests. He again presented complex and rich ideas in simple and easily grasped terms, inviting listeners to respond with curiosity and intelligence in joining the conversation.

His brilliant address on the role of race in modern America in response to the inflammatory, anti-national and racist remarks of his long-time pastor Jeremiah Wright elevated the discourse to a higher level by successfully changing the conversation. But the potential for long-term damage to his presidential candidacy remains.

Mr. Wright’s sermons negate Mr. Obama’s central message of hope, optimism, unity and reconciliation. The fiery anger is in vivid contrast to Mr. Obama’s own cool and calm demeanour that radiates grace and reassurance. Secondly, Mr. Obama was guilty of an intellectual and moral sleight of hand. Having first claimed not to have heard the raging sermons, he quietly let slip that he had indeed heard some of those statements. Thirdly, they undermine his claim to judgment. Why did he fail to persuade Mr. Wright to take a more generous view of contemporary America or else walk out? Hillary Clinton is right in pointing to the fallacy of the comparison with his white grandmother: you cannot choose one, you can the other. She is vulnerable to the riposte that she too chose to stay with her deeply flawed husband; John McCain will not suffer the same handicap.

Fourthly, they negate one of the strongest advantages Mr. Obama has had over Ms Clinton. The Clinton name is so toxic among Republicans that her candidacy would rally the Republican base in large numbers. The Wright videos will have the same effect with an Obama candidacy. They are certain to be used extensively by the Republicans to raise money and get out the vote in November.

Most importantly, they reinforce the central Clinton charge against Mr. Obama, that he is too unknown to trust the nation’s security in his hands. In retrospect, the notorious 3 a.m. red phone ad was devastatingly effective because it played subliminally into racial fears. I doubt that the Clinton campaign was conscious of this, let alone used it deliberately for this purpose. But the reality is that the images of little white girls lying in the bed in the early hours of the morning were powerful in evoking fears of a male black stranger in the house with innocent little children asleep.

The Clinton campaign had gained traction also by a two-step strategy straight out of the Karl Rove textbook which was married to a vintage Hillary Clinton ploy. She took Mr. Obama’s biggest strength — his eloquence — and attacked it relentlessly as a weakness: “he gives empty speeches, I offer real solutions.” And she converted her most enduring weakness — her willingness to say and do anything to win — into a major campaign strength: tough enough to take on and beat the Republicans and be ready to walk back into the Oval Office on day one. If Mr. Obama retaliated to the insults, Ms Clinton feigned injured innocence and appealed to supporters for more funds. Entrapped by his own narrative of being above old-style attack politics, Mr. Obama allowed Ms Clinton to define their respective political personas.

It required a vintage scandal to bring Ms Clinton’s enduring negatives to the fore. Her claims to 35 years of executive level experience that made her ready to be commander-in-chief were spurious. A pliant and all-too easily intimidated press failed in its due diligence in taking apart her claims. But then she got caught out on video in a bald-faced lie that was almost breathtaking in its audacity-cum-stupidity. She had claimed, repeatedly, in the presence of cameras, and in gripping vivid detail, that she had gone to Bosnia as First Lady under highly dangerous circumstances, been subjected to sniper fire, and ducked and ran for cover on arrival at Tuzla airport.

This was never a credible story: President Bill Clinton would not have sent his wife and teenage daughter on a visit too dangerous for him. The dates were easily cross-checked: she went a year after the 1995 peace agreement. The contemporary media accounts were easily available and remarkably silent on this dramatic adventure. Then several video footages turned up, showing conclusively that the whole account was a figment of her hyperactive imagination. Confronted with the evidence, in effect Ms Clinton shrugged, said she had misspoken, was merely human, no big deal, and can we now return instead to the subject of Mr. Obama’s pastor.

Only the Clintons have the chutzpah to carry on in public when caught out to an acutely embarrassing degree that would send most ordinary folks into shamefaced hiding for months. Astonishingly, she still seems to have a blindly loyal following that is not fazed by the thought of electing a President who has been proven on film to be a liar.

Unfortunately for Ms Clinton, this non-reaction is not universal. Many are no longer able to continue with the denial of Ms Clinton’s character and campaign tactics, nor forgive parents who would require their 28-year-old daughter to back up the mother in a public lie. The debacle now strongly reinforces the powerfully negative images of both Bill and Hillary Clinton: ruthless in their lust for power, willing and able to lie to the people on camera without any trace of shame, and with a history of deceit, evasions and thuggish behaviour towards political opponents.

The bursting of the female James Bond persona in Bosnia brought back memories of the famous New York Times column by William Safire in 1996 that labelled Hillary Clinton a congenital liar. This was based on her evasions on her remarkable profits on commodity trading, the firing of White House travel aides, and the suicide of White House lawyer Vincent Foster. Since then, she has also claimed that her daughter was jogging in the immediate vicinity of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 (Chelsea watched their destruction on television); she had always opposed NAFTA when the reluctantly released White House records prove that she lobbied actively for it; she was named after Edmund Hillary, except he climbed Mt. Everest five years after her birth; she played an instrumental role in Northern Ireland without which we may have never had a peace agreement — dismissed as “a wee bit silly” by David Trimble, co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for that event.

A habit

It recalls her habit of non-disclosures and raises further questions about what she might be hiding in past tax returns and donor lists. Most worryingly for any politician, Ms Clinton entered the laughter and mockery zone. For example, blaming her “misspeaking” about Bosnia on sleep deprivation invited ridicule about being able to handle a major crisis at 3 a.m. Her positive rating has plummeted to 37 per cent while her negative rating climbed to 48 per cent. Mr. Obama remains in net positive territory. The average of the latest opinion polls show him ahead by 4.4 points and rising by about 0.5 points daily since the Bosnia falsehood was so dramatically and hilariously exposed.

Evidence of the internal damage to the Democratic Party is mounting. One-fifth of Obama and Clinton supporters threaten to vote Republican if their candidate loses the nomination. Fearful of the damage to their prospects in November if the civil war of attrition continues, and based on the delegate count and the small number of primary contests remaining, calls are growing for Ms Clinton to concede and withdraw.

He is ahead by 166 pledged delegates and 131 superdelegates, by 13.6-12.9 million votes, in opinion polls, and gaining high-profile endorsements. She insists that she will fight on all the way to the convention floor if necessary. She may do so because she really believes that Mr. Obama would be a disaster against Mr. McCain; that he is not ready to be President, whereas she is (the Rosa Parks syndrome: he should sit at the back of the bus); because she wants to destroy him as a viable candidate so that following one McCain term, she returns as nominee and President in 2012; or simply because if she doesn’t get the nomination, she wants to ensure his defeat. The last is called the Tonya Harding option after the U.S. Olympic ice skater who literally had Nancy Kerrigan, her rival for gold, kneecapped by a hired thug 14 years ago.

Yet in the end, Mr. Obama should thank Ms Clinton for improving his debating skills, sharpening his political agility, honing his counter-attacking skills, and toughening his campaign resilience. The race with her is over; he will need the hard-earned skills for the real race.

(Ramesh Thakur is Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo.)