The recent news that Hillary Clinton had appreciably widened the gap over her fierce arch-rival Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nod wasn't surprising. In fact, the only ones that it surprised and infuriated were those who have put a fervent, almost messianic faith in Obama as the savior of the Democratic Party, and for the even more starry-eyed, the nation. That's a terrible burden to dump on the shoulders of a novice candidate who, by his own public admission, is still at the very front of the learning curve on foreign and national domestic policy issues, gropes for an edge in the candidate debates, and is still figuring out how to identify and target a solid constituency.
Obama has, in a sense, been both a victim of and pandered to those inflated expectations. What else could you call it when he presents himself as the guy who will rattle the system by being anti-party establishment, anti-corporate domination, and a visionary on the folly of Iraq war and how best to wage the war on terrorism. Obama's record in the Senate, his stint in the Illinois state legislature, and his relentless chase of corporate dollars belies that claim.
Clinton, in contrast, plays it close to the vest, and other than the ritual and obligatory attacks on Bush's war, and his domestic policies, she has said and done nothing that will create blown-up illusions among voters. Progressives and ultra-liberal Democrats hate that, and they pound on her harder than Republican ultra-conservatives and the professional Hillary haters among some hyper-religious fundamentalists have. But Clinton knows what Obama is slowly discovering and that's that elections are won not in early popularity polls, but in tough, gritty work in the state party caucuses, recruiting crack field organizers, and dedicated volunteers. Voters elect presidents that they feel will do three things: bring stability, strength, and experience to the top spot.
In the CNN poll that proclaimed that Clinton gaps Obama, voters gave her top marks on experience and strength (They gave Obama short shrift on both). That's another way of saying that they don't want someone in the White House that will stumble and bumble on policy issues. Bush was elected and re-elected precisely because voters got conned into thinking that they were putting a guy in and back in the White House who was tough and experienced and would not fall on his face on policy issues. They were terribly wrong. They're not inclined to make that mistake again or at least make it knowingly.
Hillary gave a vivid glimpse of her experience in the now defining debate in which Obama flatly said he'd meet with Hugo Chavez, and the Iranian and North Korean leaders. There was nothing inherently wrong with that, and good foreign policy is made and leadership shown as much by talking to enemies as friends. It's just that Obama was far off in his timing in making that declaration and badly misjudged the public perception that it left. A seasoned presidential candidate or experienced public official who has had long experience in dealing with foreign policy matters and is recognized as such by the voters might have gotten away with that. But Obama is not that candidate or official. It looked and sounded like the brash and rash boast of a naïve, and horribly green candidate trying to score foreign policy brownie points at the expense of his rivals. Clinton quickly spotted the faux paus and leaped all over it and quickly said she wouldn't make that same pledge.
Then there's the issue of constituency strength, or more particularly, who can do the best job in identifying where their strength is and corralling it. Democrat party leaders know that the 2008 presidential race will come down to a showdown in Florida, several of the key Western states, and for the more optimistic, unhinging one or two Southern states out of the GOP orbit. Victories in these states can seal the White House for the Democrats. Democrats won none of them in 2000 and 2004. They also know that the key too snaring those states is the Latino and black vote. Hillary easily trumps Obama here. Polls show that Latinos overwhelmingly back Hillary against Obama and even take her by big margins over Bill Richardson.
To win Florida, and a Southern state or two, will take a top-heavy and inspired turnout of black voters. Clinton runs neck-and-neck with Obama among wide swatches of black voters. In recent polls, she handily tops him in bagging the support of the majority of black women voters.
Obama brings a fresh face, new voice and energy to the Democratic presidential derby. That's welcome and much-needed. But the Clinton machine is a well-honed, heavy cash generating, smooth running machine. In the crush and heat of a long campaign, that's what it takes to win votes and ultimately elections. That's why Clinton trumps, and will continue to trump, Obama.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.