History was made June 3, 2008. The first draft goes something like this: Senator Barack Obama, the son of a black Kenyan man and a white Kansan woman, won the longest primary ever waged, becoming the first African-American major-party nominee for President of the United States. He narrowly defeated Senator Hillary Clinton, splitting with her some 36 million votes cast in fifty-seven contests, the highest turnout ever in a presidential primary. There is much to marvel at in this turn of events, including the fact that for much of this nation’s past neither candidate would have been allowed to vote, much less run for the country’s highest office.
But the historic significance of Obama’s victory lies not just in the records and barriers it has broken but in how it was achieved. Tapping into a widespread yearning for change and revulsion over the Iraq War, Obama built from scratch a formidable political organization, one that beat an all but anointed favorite who at the outset had every advantage, including the support of party insiders and a hefty war chest.
Relying on small donations and volunteers, Obama assembled a broad coalition of supporters–one that included independents and crossover Republicans–not by running to the center or trying to out-muscle Republicans on national security but by offering a more peaceable alternative. When the smear campaigns against his race, religion and patriotism escalated, he endured by sticking to the issues and by rejecting “the kind of politics that uses religion as a wedge and patriotism as a bludgeon.”
Those words, spoken by Obama in St. Paul at the same podium where John McCain will accept his party’s nomination, signaled the presumptive nominee’s eagerness to get past the Demo- cratic primary’s most bitter moments and his readiness to confront the Republican attacks to come. However the question of Hillary Clinton’s future role is settled, the Obama campaign must find a way to wash away the sour aftertaste of her campaign’s unsavory tactics and to harness the passion she has inspired–no simple task, and one that her nonconcession speech June 3 in New York did not make any easier.
But Clinton’s campaign–which offered the exciting prospect of a woman shattering the ultimate glass ceiling–could still leave a positive legacy, if she spends the remainder of this election season promoting the Democratic nominee along with her own best policy ideas about how to address the healthcare and housing crises–rather than pursuing an endgame that only her most die-hard supporters (and cynical Republicans) can cheer.
Assuming Clinton and Obama find a way to work together, the scenario for the general election is quite hopeful. We have a massively energized, if still raw, Democratic electorate. Obama and Clinton each drew nearly twice as many votes as any GOP candidate. And in the general election, rather than a long race with few substantive differences, we have a short race–just five months–with huge policy differences between the parties on nearly every issue: from the war to healthcare to the home foreclosure crisis and the stumbling economy.
Of course, this is not the sort of discussion that an ideologically exhausted Republican Party and conservative movement wants to have. But the Democratic nominee has bet his candidacy on the proposition that Americans hunger for a real discussion of the issues and that they are ready to “turn the page on the policies of the past.” The general election will put this premise–and Obama’s faith in the “basic decency” of the American people–to the test.