Jewish Journal

Hillary withdraws—the end of the beginning

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

June 8, 2008 | 11:13 am

Now that Hillary Clinton has issued her long-awaited and full-throated endorsement of Barack Obama, the extended first phase of the 2008 race is over.  There is a slight feeling of anti-climax as we wind up for the big one.  On the Democratic side, the semi-finals were monstrously difficult, while the Republican division was relatively quiet.

But it won’t be long before we realize that for the first time in months, there are only two candidates, not three.

The post-mortems on Hillary’s campaign are already pouring in, and I don’t intend to join the crowd.  Just as in sports, winning doesn’t mean you did everything perfectly and losing doesn’t mean you did everything wrong.  Hillary’s juggernaut, designed for years to win in 2008, was derailed by a better campaign that could not have been anticipated in advance.  Had Obama not run, and had he not found the soft spots in the Clinton machine – the boiling rage in the party about the Iraq war, the value of caucus states in accumulating delegates, the new ways to raise money online in small amounts – then all the things we call weaknesses would have been seen as strengths.

Great candidacies by African Americans tend to come from the reform wing of the Democratic party.  That’s how Tom Bradley came up in Los Angeles.  Like Obama, he took a reform model that is often bloodless, and linked it to African Americans to create a winning combination.  It’s hard to see it coming, because time after time the reform candidate for the Democratic nomination loses without a working class base.  Few anticipate just how powerful African American candidates can be when linked up to broader reform coalitions.

Changing a political party is a bloody business.  When the Clintons came up in 1992, they took a party that was on the left and pulled it to the center.  There are people still angry about that shift.  The Clintons proved that in the 90s, with Republican ideas in the ascendancy, that was the way to win.

What changed in 2008 was that the national loathing of President Bush, far more intense and deep than the voter rejection of his father in 1992, gave a chance for a more aggressive, bolder, more national Democratic party than the Clintons had designed.  If this becomes a winning strategy, it will create a new Democratic party linking presidential and congressional campaigns (including through Obama’s fundraising success) that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s.

I’ve been saying all along that the Democratic race would be over just after June 3.  All right, so I was off by a few days, but I was close.  It’s not really completely over, because of the buzz about whether Clinton should be on the ticket as VP.  I think that’s doubtful, but it will consume more time.  The Clintons are always going to make campaign news, and I expect Bill to offer unsolicited and unhelpful advice to Obama in public.  I also expect Hillary to be very active and very supportive.  She will not disappear.

For all the anger in the Democratic campaign, the primary race was more helpful than hurtful.  There were no serious ideological disagreements between the two candidates.  Rather, it was a conflict of personas and styles.

An open seat allows more scope for primary hurt than an ideological insurgency against an incumbent president of one’s own party (e.g., McCarthy against Johnson in 1968, Reagan against Ford in 1976, Kennedy against Carter in 1980, Buchanan against Bush in 1992).  Those are almost always fatal.

Indeed, McCain has been hurt by the weakness of the Republican field, and by his ability to stay out of the line of political fire in the primaries.  He seems genuinely shocked to be attacked by the Obama campaign, and his famous temper seems ready to blow at any time.  He would have been better off hearing about this stuff from his fellow Republicans first.

Obama now has the chance to directly reach out to constituencies that were in a close dialogue with Clinton: women, Jews, Latinos, working class whites.  Clinton doesn’t own these constituencies, but she got there before Obama.  She generated a remarkable vocabulary for speaking to them, and showed Obama the way. Now he gets a chance to introduce himself to them once again.

So….let the games begin!

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Raphael J. Sonenshein (born 1949 in Nutley, New Jersey) was a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton. He is also served as chairman of the...

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