So here we are again. As has been the case so often this primary season, weeks spent eagerly anticipating some "decisive" result gave way to an election night that merely returned the race to its torturous equilibrium. Six weeks ago polls showed Hillary Clinton up by nineteen points in Pennsylvania. As he has in nearly every state, Barack Obama closed the gap, improving on his performance in Ohio among whites and older voters--but not by enough.
If neither candidate's chances of winning the primary was changed Tuesday, something else was. The six-week grind to April 22 featured a sustained descent into what Obama rightly called "the distractions and the silliness" that trivialize serious issues. Instead of scrutinizing the candidates' Iraq exit strategies or economic recovery plans, the press ran endless loops of a few truncated moments of Reverend Wright's sermons, images of Clinton on the tarmac in Tuzla, Obama's "bitter" comments. It all culminated in the infamous "debate" on ABC, whose moderators spent the first fifty-three minutes lingering with prurient seriousness over such details as Obama's lack of a red, white and blue lapel pin.
But it wasn't just the media. In a recent Sunday talk-show appearance, McCain was eager to delve--unprompted--into yet another discussion about Bill Ayers, while Clinton invoked her affinity for her small-town brethren by recounting her girlhood shooting lessons. In other words, multimillionaire McCain, the millionaire pundit class and the millionaire Clintons all spent the last weeks waging a culture war against a man who spent most of his career organizing in or representing the South Side of Chicago. It was enough to make one cling to religion.
What was so dispiriting about this spectacle wasn't its nastiness. Politics in a democracy will always be rancorous; it's the nonviolent means we've established to referee conflicting interests. No, it was the sheer staleness: the run-up to Pennsylvania was dominated by the umpteenth iteration of a clash of fabricated caricatures. On one hand, the out-of-touch, pointy-headed, anti-American intellectuals, with their airs and condescension and contempt for the heartland, and on the other, our mythical hero: the God-fearing, gun-toting, patriotic, salt-of-the-earth reactionary.
It's Nixon's "silent majority" all over again, a category he constructed in order to fence the left into minority status. That the mainstream media have adopted these fictional categories is maddening but par for the course. What isn't par for the course is Clinton's contribution to this effort, her unabashed leftbaiting of her foe and her adoption of the vocabulary of backlash conservatism in order to paint the likely Democratic nominee as tainted by his associations with radicals. These tactics threaten to undercut a progressive rationale for her candidacy.
The irony is that Clinton has succeeded in doing what Obama could not. By tirelessly flogging these invented scandals, the Clinton campaign has given concrete substance to what had formerly been airy and abstract pronouncements from Obama about the need to get past "the old politics." Watching the last few weeks of the campaign unfold, one couldn't help but think: Yes, this is broken. This does need to change.
When this primary season began, we cheered the grassroots spirit that had pushed Democratic candidates in a more progressive direction. If the Clinton campaign continues its slouch along the low road, that promise will be severely damaged, as well may be Democrats' chances for victory in the fall. Voters and superdelegates now have to ask, at what cost is Clinton willing to continue this fight?