White House race: end of the Clinton road

Niall Stanage

The latest primaries surely seal it. Barack Obama has overwhelmed his opponent at every turn.

It is all over bar the shouting. On Tuesday night, the most remarkable party nomination battle in a generation, joined four months ago in the snows of Iowa, was brought to a de facto end. Hillary Clinton told her supporters in Indianapolis: “It’s full speed on to the White House.” But even she cannot really believe it.

The Clintonistas had argued that the sheen had come off Barack Obama in recent weeks and that he was fatally flawed as a presidential candidate. But the Illinois Senator proved his resilience, performing more strongly in Indiana than in the demographically comparable state of Pennsylvania two weeks ago — and this despite the re-emergence of his controversial former preacher, Jeremiah Wright, in the interim.

The Clinton camp had also insisted that Mr. Obama was unable to bring together the traditional Democratic coalition, his support among African-Americans allegedly offset by a disastrous weakness among white voters. But Mr. Obama won 40 per cent of white votes in Indiana. And if the former first lady’s supporters would still claim this to be too poor a showing, there is an obvious rebuttal: about 90 per cent of African-Americans in both Indiana and North Carolina supported Mr. Obama. Where does Ms Clinton get the idea that she would be best at weaving together the traditional strands of her party’s support when she can persuade only one in 10 black people to back her?

Ms Clinton will soon have time to reflect on the reasons why she lost a contest she was expected to win easily. Much of the blame must lie with her campaign, which took too long to offer a compelling rationale for her candidacy, failed her organisationally, and seemed awash in a sense of entitlement that turned voters off. She was also, truth be told, a candidate with serious weaknesses. Poll after poll showed that Democrats viewed her as less honest than Mr. Obama. Her apparent enthusiasm for the dark side of politics — “This is the fun part,” she said as the campaign turned negative in the run-in to Iowa — rankled. Covering the campaign, I lost count of the number of times I heard a variation of the comment made by Karen Cox, a part-time real estate agent who showed up to see Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle, speak in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the eve of polling. Referring to Ms Clinton, Cox said: “She lacks authenticity.”

Obama’s achievement

Yet parsing the weaknesses of the Clinton campaign tells only half the story of this remarkable election. And it risks blocking out the scale of Mr. Obama’s achievement. A man who was toiling in obscurity in the Illinois State legislature three years ago is on the brink of defeating the dynasty that has dominated Democratic politics for almost two decades. He has outpolled, outmanoeuvred, out-fundraised and out-organised the Clintons.

But that alone is not what makes Mr. Obama special. He has done what the former first lady could never have done: held out the promise of a politics that transcends division, that does not get down in the mud but calls voters to a higher purpose, that strains for decency and even, on occasion, nobility.

Ms Clinton promised to play the same old game better than anyone else. Mr. Obama said the game itself could be changed. “Don’t ever forget that we have a choice in this country,” he said in his victory speech in North Carolina. “We can choose not to be divided ... we can choose not to be afraid ... we can still choose this moment to finally come together ... this time can be different than all the rest.” Can it? Time — and a long, punishing election campaign — will tell. But, on Tuesday night, it seemed at last that the answer might indeed be: yes, it can. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008

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