Can Hillary Clinton do it? Is it imaginable that the cup of nomination might be
torn from Barack Obama's lips? Is it still conceivable that in 2008 America
could elect its first black president, or its first female one? Is it
possible that, after eight years of George Bush, the Republicans could yet
retain the White House in the eccentric shape of John McCain?
Nobody, and I mean nobody, has an answer to these questions.
Families, friends, pundits, barmen, and cab-drivers disagree wildly over what
will happen or what should happen. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed
guru is king. This is the most intriguing presidential campaign of modern
Meanwhile at every twist and turn along the road, there is another
barrage from another quarter of the never-sleeping American electorate. The
Republican primaries are over but the Democratic ones are relentless, from
the icy blasts of Iowa and New Hampshire in January to the torrid spring of
Indiana and North Carolina in two weeks time. The party just cannot make up
Last week the apparently smooth path to party coronation of Barack
Obama has ground almost to a halt thanks to a feisty, fighting, spitting,
jeering rear-guard action by Hillary Clinton. She just refuses to give up.
When every dictate of dignity and party unity suggests she should have
conceded months ago, she will not give way to Obama.
Her campaign has been a chaos of sacked managers, unpaid bills,
gaffes and indiscretions, but she cries, "The American people deserve a
president who doesn't quit" and that is that. The Clintons' motto is that
they "will do anything to win" and they are being true to it. They give the
old Democratic party an echo of the good times, of men who play mean and
hard. There is a touch of Margaret Thatcher to Clinton at present.
This weekend her aides are frantically seeking to reverse the
arithmetic of the primary process, which gives Obama a near unbeatable
superiority in delegates at the August Democratic convention. Near is the
operative word. If the Florida primary had not been disallowed on a
technicality, Clinton probably would have more popular votes within the party than
Obama, as many at 500,000 out of 15m.
She argues that she has shown her strength in key states such as
Ohio and Pennsylvania which Democrats must win to beat the Republicans, and
where poor white voters might go for McCain or not vote rather than support
Obama. If Clinton wins another such state, Indiana, in ten days time that
argument will further strengthen (though not put her ahead in delegates).
Power will then lie with the as yet unattached "superdelegates", who will
hold the convention balance and who should, says Clinton, switch to her if
the party is to beat McCain. America, she implies, is ready for a woman
president but not a black one.
Until last week, Obama could match this argument toe to toe. While
Clinton's support may be deep in states the Democrats are not likely to
lose, his is broad, to a wide coalition of blacks, the young and
college-educated voters. He has shown that he can increase Democratic
registration and thus bring many hitherto Republican southern states into
play. He is new and exciting, and would make McCain appear tired and old.
His is a new covenant between his party and the people, a new leaf turned
over from old Clinton mafia.
It is hard to imagine that America could find another candidate so
perfectly cast to be its first black president. Obama not only writes good
books (by himself) and makes good speeches, he has a solid record of
legislation in Congress. His team is calm, efficient and, in comparison to
Clinton's, loyal. Of the three surviving candidates, he is the only one
with a presidential aura, even if at times it seems aloof and
A writer in the New York Review, Garry Wills, compared Obama's
recent speech on race with Abraham Lincoln's, as that of a man who could
rise above the squabbles and guilt-by-association that goes with running
for president. Merely by being elected, Obama could resolve the anguish
that seems to afflict modern America, both abroad and at home. Surely black
America's time has come.
That was until last week. Forget Obama's fine qualities, say
Clinton's supporters. They have been put to the test and, as yet, Americans
are not fully convinced. In polls they may like Obama more than Clinton,
but they do not know him as they know her. Hence her lethal jibe, "He is
not a Muslim... as far as I know," and the equally nauseous advertisement
implying that Americans would not want a black hand reaching out to the 3AM
crisis phone call.
If in ten days time the Democrats of Indiana join those of Ohio and
Pennsylvania in rejecting Obama, then white working-class America will have
spoken. "We won where we have to win," says Clinton. If this in turn panics
undecided delegates into backing her, it proves that an older and more
conservative America is unwilling to confront the change that Obama offers.
He will disappear as another "McGovern-style", wine-drinking liberal who
cannot address America in a language it understands.
This is mostly code. Despite Obama's plea to be treated as "just an
ordinary American" and his cry that "in no other country on earth is my
story possible," his faltering at this late stage is only in part due to
his unfortunate remark about working-class bitterness and his association
with a dodgy pastor. It is for his colour.
That is why Democrats wavering over his suitability regard
Clinton's challenge is reasonable if tough. Has this man -- has this black
man -- got what it takes to overcome everything that the Republicans at
their meanest will throw at him come November? Or will he take his party
down to a defeat which, after eight years of Bush, will be ignominious in
the extreme, and put back the cause of black political advance in the
process. This is no less pertinent for him being able to ask the same
question of Clinton as a woman, but at this juncture she is appearing
physically and emotionally tougher than him.
If Obama is denied the nomination by such last-minute
superdelegate skull-duggery, the consequence could be catastrophic for the
Democrats. Black America will be enraged. The chosen candidate, Clinton,
and her ever-present husband will be seen as the agents of rejection. They
will have denied their party the historic glory of being the first to
nominate a black for president.
In the process they will have roused all the hobgoblins of racism
and reaction in old white America, and for what? Clinton already claims as
a qualification her "eight years' experience" with Bill in the White House.
There seems to be no satisfying the gigantic ambition of this couple.
Millions of black and progressive Americans -- and many who just cannot bear
the Clintons -- may never forgive them. They could deny Clinton not just the
presidency in November but her seat in the Senate thereafter.
Foreigners may look on this saga with stunned horror. A bruised and
uncertain America -- 80 percent of whose citizens claim it has "gone off on
the wrong track" under Bush -- is tearing itself apart in what appears a
parody of democracy. But it is not a parody. Given the rigidity of the
electoral college in the final election -- reducing the real contest to just
a handful of swing states -- the primaries are the one chance that tens of
millions of voters have of scrutinising and passing judgment on who should
The attention paid by candidates to the smallest communities in
states across the nation is phenomenal. Compared with the synthesised and
centralised elections of Europe's political clubs, it is politics raw and
intimate and real.
I, as an outsider, may believe that a President Obama would
rejuvenate his country's sense of itself and so transform America's world
image in the coming century as to be worth any shortcoming in his campaign
so far. But the trial by ordeal through which he must pass is a fair one.
The next president must end a war and rescue a nation's finances.
He or she will need massive legitimacy to do so. The primary campaign is a
necessary ritual of that legitimacy. It bears sober witness to the