The dark side of the Democratic bid

Superb analysis and writing from Jonathan Raban in the Guardian -

[…] the Republican debates have the air of cocktail parties whose guests have been selected by random telephone dialling. The candidates deliver monologues: Romney talks chalk, Huckabee cheese, Giuliani cabbages, McCain kings. Here and there a familiar term spoken by one contender – “Iraq”, “abortion”, “tax code”, “illegals” – will trigger a sudden animated reflex from another, but the prevailing mood is one of bemused civility, as at the cocktail party where the plumber’s mate stares gloomily into his glass, waiting for the plant geneticist to stop maundering on about rice genomes so that he can get back to the important topic of stopcocks.

[…]

For Democrats, the sight of the Republican party behaving like an Italian coalition government on the brink of collapse was the cause of much complacent schadenfreude, yet, even as they gloated, rifts appeared within their own ranks that are deeper and darker than those separating the Republicans. It’s not on matters of policy that the Democrats disagree: one can barely slide a cigarette paper between Clinton’s and Obama’s healthcare proposals, their schemes for juicing up the economy, or their depressingly threadbare plans for getting out of the morass of Iraq. The Democratic candidates entered the race with so much in common that, from the beginning, they were stuck with inflating minor differences of biography, temperament and style into major issues. In lieu of more weighty differentiating features, their age (or “experience”, as Hillary Clinton likes to call it), skin colour, gender and social class have become their defining characteristics, and these in turn are defining the character of each candidate’s supporters.

The most interesting political discussion I saw last week was filmed in a South Carolina hair salon, where five women were talking, not about war, taxes, healthcare or early childhood education, but about whether race trumps gender or gender trumps race. In this snapshot-sample of the electorate, race was clearly trumping gender, since four of the five were planning to vote for Obama. The lone standout, and the oldest in the group, said, “I’m a woman. She’s a woman. That’s enough for me.” As it turned out, that was exactly how the black vote broke for Obama, by four to one, in South Carolina last Saturday.

Mounting personal acrimony between the two Clintons and Obama has spread like an infection through the party at large. Hillary Clinton never loses an opportunity to refer to Obama, with grandmotherly condescension, as a “young man”, and Bill Clinton has called him a “kid”; terms that many black listeners have been too quick to interpret as racially charged, as if they were veiled surrogates for the toxic slur of “boy”. It has always been part of Clinton’s strategy to paint Obama as too green for the presidency, and since she is counting on the over-65s (a group that turns out to vote, rain or shine) and his biggest following is among the young (a group famously allergic to the ballot box), the age slights have more to do with generational than racial warfare.

Race is an issue in subtler, nastier ways. Clinton operatives have stressed Obama’s middle name, Hussein, with the clear implication that Barack might have something unconfessed in common with Saddam. (The rumour that he is a secret Muslim continues to flourish in mass- circulated emails.) A columnist for the Washington Post, Richard Cohen, who is batting for Clinton and used the sickbag phrase “a mother’s warm tears” to describe the winning catch in her voice when answering a question in the Ports-mouth, New Hampshire diner, slyly raised the question of Obama’s possible “antisemitism” because a back issue of the parish magazine put out by his Chicago church had praised Louis Farrakhan. Obama immediately repudiated Farrakhan’s views, but Cohen had successfully planted the message that Jews had better vote for Clinton just to be on the safe side. In Nevada, the racial lines were redrawn to fan the differences between Hispanics and African Americans, competing on the same urban turf for jobs and housing – Hispanics for Clinton, African Americans for Obama. Last week I heard a commentator for National Public Radio explain that if Obama won the South Carolina primary, it would be a “problem” for him because whites and Hispanics would then see him as “the candidate of the blacks”.

Barely a month ago, Americans (and not just Democrats) were inspired by Obama because he promised to heal the angry national wounds of race, class and gender. Yet now it seems his candidacy has – however inadvertently – not only brought those wounds back into full view, but made them bleed afresh. The Sunday before last, when Obama spoke to a packed congregation at Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, he drew on a trope he has often used with black audiences: he likened himself to Joshua, heir to Moses (that would be Dr King), on the eve of the battle of Jericho, whose walls came a-tumblin’ down. “Together,” said Obama, “we will sing the song that tears down the walls that divide us, and lift up an America that is truly indivisible.”

Indivisible? The next evening, in the televised debate at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Clinton and Obama were at each other’s throats before a predominantly black crowd, which erupted into boos and catcalls (mostly directed at Clinton’s attempted savaging of Obama). The person who most enjoyed this spectacle was apparently Bill Clinton, who said: “I liked seeing Barack and Hillary fight. They’re real people. I’ve been waiting all my life to see this sort of thing.”

Yet there is one major social divide, almost as important in its way as race itself, that Obama has already proved he can bridge, though the significance of his success has gone largely unnoticed. To see it clearly, you have to look closely at the results of the Nevada caucuses, which Obama narrowly lost to Clinton because he failed to carry Clark County, site of Nevada’s only big metropolitan city, Las Vegas, with its enormous population of Hispanic voters. But in more rural counties he beat Clinton decisively – 63% to her 37% in Elko, 51% to 34% in Humboldt, 50% to 40% in Washoe (the missing percentages belong to John Edwards). I’ve been to those counties, their miles of lonely roads where you can drive for half an hour before encountering another vehicle, their scattered ranches and isolated towns, their seasonal creeks marked by lines of spindly cottonwood trees, the overwhelmingly Caucasian cast of their people. Out there in the mountains, sagebrush and high desert, Obama carried the day by far greater margins than his overall loss of the popular vote to Clinton across the state, and came out of the caucuses with one more delegate than she did.

Remember that in 2004 every American city with a population over 500,000 voted Democrat, and the Republicans won by taking the countryside and the outer suburbs. The blue state/red state division is better expressed in terms of the persistent conflicts between the big cities and their rural hinterlands, over land use, water rights and environmental, class and cultural issues. Red states are simply those where the country can outvote the urban centres, while in blue states the opposite is true. The perception that America has liberal coasts and a conservative interior merely reflects the fact that the coastal states are home to the largest metropolitan areas with the most electoral muscle. Last time around, for instance, Bush easily won the heartland state of Missouri, but was as crushingly defeated by Kerry in St Louis as he was in the cities of New York, Boston, San Francisco and Seattle.

So Obama’s victory over Clinton in rural Nevada says something important about his ability as the apostle of national reconciliation. To win against Clinton in Elko County (black population: 0.8%), he had to convert not only white Democrats, but a large number of independents and people who had voted Republican until caucus day; a feat he pulled off with dazzling facility. Any Democrat nominee who can do that, deep in Republican country, is likely to gain the presidency; and Obama has proved that he can. Clinton, laden with the moral, cultural and political baggage of the 1990s, is likely to fare as badly in Elko County as Kerry did in 2004, when he collected just 20% of the vote.

The Democrats I know are currently pumped up by Obama’s unexpectedly lavish win in South Carolina and his endorsement by Edward Kennedy, but that mood is unlikely to last. Though better for Obama than it was forecast to be, the South Carolina result, in which 80% of black voters supported him and 75% of whites supported a white candidate, is hard to interpret as a triumphant break with the old, bad “identity politics” of the past. Underneath the weekend euphoria is the pessimistic conviction that a candidate who really could win in November is going to lose out, by slow and painful degrees, punctuated with occasional Iowas and South Carolinas, to a candidate whose eventual nomination will give heart to Republicans across the land. Obama is like the physician who is felled by the very disease he was trying to cure: having promised to heal America’s festering divisions, he is in danger of being swallowed by them, as they yawn within his own party, brown against black, black against white, female against male, Jew against gentile, not to mention old against young, and blue-collar workers against “highly educated professionals” (as the pollsters say). The basic demographics of the party are still in his disfavour, even though the demographics of the country at large suit him very well. And John Edwards’ exit from the primaries seems unlikely to help Obama in his so far failing quest to enlist the votes of white, blue-collar males – a constituency that has until now been split between Clinton and Edwards.

When not preaching his exhilarating sermon of unity at rallies of the faithful, in interviews and town meetings, Obama has shown an intellectual’s taste for ironic paradox – dangerous in a politician, as his remark about Reagan proved. On the evening of February 5, I fear he’s going to need as much of that useful faculty as he can command, but I’d love to be proved wrong.

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