Hillary Rodham Clinton’s address to an AFL-CIO group on Wednesday morning could easily have been mistaken for the speech of someone who would soon be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. Clinton was warmly received by the standing-room-only, mostly middle-aged, predominantly male crowd. She said all the right things in all the right ways. She projected the confidence of a winner taking a victory lap to see yet another of the party’s key constituencies.
Just a year ago, Clinton seemed to possess everything she needed to win: sufficient support among all the key demographic groups, a deep reservoir of goodwill, and an excellent organizational and fundraising infrastructure. Winning the nomination looked like it would be a piece of cake. Yet she now trails Barack Obama by about 136 delegates. The prize is so close and yet so far that Clinton needs near-landslide victories in the remaining contests to get within striking distance of the nomination.
Clinton started off with a big lead among women in a party with a female majority; among older voters in states with primaries dominated by seniors; and among less educated and lower-income voters in a nomination process that has reliably skewed downscale. She was ahead not just among Hispanic voters, the party’s fastest-growing minority group, but also among African-Americans, even though her strongest rival was black.
Clinton probably could name hundreds of things that she wishes she had done differently. But the things that went right for Obama may have been more important than anything that Clinton did wrong.
With apologies to high school chemistry teachers everywhere, here is how such an instructor might describe the essential elements in Obama’s candidacy that left such more-established figures as Clinton, Joseph Biden, Christopher Dodd, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson behind.
First, take the “future” and “new ideas” and “change” articulated by Gary Hart in 1984 and Bill Bradley in 2000, keeping in mind how those ideas tended to be stirred in a largely non-ideological, non-issue-specific manner. “Change” is less of a means to a particular end in this formulation than an end unto itself: Change is good, the more the better.
Second, combine the idealism, romanticism, and symbolism of John F. Kennedy’s campaign and presidency with a dash of his glamour. Again, neither ideology nor substance activates these elements; instead, the strength and the personal charisma of the person are at the epicenter of the cause. Although the term “cult of personality” has a distinctly pejorative ring, it is not entirely wrong to apply it to the JFK and Obama campaigns.
Third is the racial component. On the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., many of Obama’s backers see his election as representing the culmination of King’s dream. And this dream apparently ranks higher in Democrats’ minds than the dream of suffragist Susan B. Anthony. (That Obama’s campaign gained strength among young white voters before it really gained momentum among black ones makes this part of his success particularly fascinating.)
Fourth is that Obama has come to personify the new term “postpartisan” by depicting himself as standing apart from the tit-for-tat of normal politics that many voters seem to associate with Bushs, Clintons, Doles, and other long-term inhabitants of modern political culture. What postpartisan really means is a great question, but embracing the concept clearly expresses rejection of the rancorous politics of recent years.
Finally, in a party that has come to loathe George W. Bush as intensely as it reviled Richard Nixon, many see Obama as the “un-Bush.” Somehow, they don’t view Hillary Clinton as different enough, but they do Obama.
This unusual combination created the equivalent in Democratic politics of nitroglycerin. It has already overpowered all but Clinton and is pushing its beneficiary closer and closer to the nomination, despite the inherent advantages that she began with. Obama’s chemistry experiment seems to defy all the normal rules of nomination politics. Could it continue working for him in a general election? That’s a 50-50 proposition, but it certainly would contribute to one of the oddest configurations that the two major parties have offered voters in our lifetimes.
This article appears in the April 19, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine.