The race for the Democratic presidential nomination is far more volatile now than it was on January 3, that distant day when hopeful Iowans trooped to their caucuses. And it is a whole lot more volatile than it was on February 19, when Barack Obama’s landslide primary win in the classic “swing state” of Wisconsin seemed to confirm his inevitability.
Back at the start of January, the best bet was still that New York Senator Hillary Clinton would be the nominee of a united Democratic party against some deeply dysfunctional Republican like former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney – a northeastern moderate with a record of supporting gay rights and abortion rights that put him dramatically at odds with the sentiments of his party’s base voters, a monumental list of personal quirks and fiscal misdeeds, and a snooty style that had Democrats salivating about the prospect of facing him in November.
The alternative bet was that Illinois Senator Obama would ride a wave of faith in the future – dare we recall the word optimism — that would position the Democrats to transform not just the presidential race but the political culture of a country that was sick and tired of being sick and tired of war and economic inequality.
How easy it all seemed.
And how far Democrats have drifted from what now must seem to many in the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy to have been halcyon days.
Now, with Clinton and Obama locked in what looks to some like a duel to the political death, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain – a war hero with an attractive reputation as a political maverick and a relationship with the media that gives new meaning to the word “cozy” — is busy buffing his multicultural credentials by posing for pictures with African-American quilters in Alabama and announcing plans to appear in July at the La Raza Annual Convention in San Diego,.
At the same time, the crusty old pol’s gleefully reviewing polling data from battleground states that is so favorable — especially for a recession year — that even McCain must be pinching himself.
Can the Democrats get their groove back?
Primaries Tuesday in Indiana and North Carolina –- states that, in January, looked certain to be backwaters on the 2008 electoral map – will go a long way toward determining the answer to that question.
The results from these two states, both of which have long histories of voting Republican in fall presidential contests, could well decide the Democrats fate. Despite promises by Clinton and Obama that they are in this for the long haul, the reality is that the race could end this week — at least for Clinton.
But will it? Or will what many Democrats have come to see as a new form of torture continue for weeks and perhaps months?
Three basic scenarios –- with variations as adventurous as one’s political imagination will allow in this definitively ill-defined year –- can reasonably be said to be in play:
1. OBAMA WINS INDIANA AND NORTH CAROLINA. Having taken the hard hits over the past ten weeks – the senator hasn’t really had a good day since he won Wisconsin in mid-February — his appeal proves to be not just resilient but triumphant. The Obama camp’s strategy of remaining cool under fire – in order to position the candidate for November — has proven to be a wise and winning one. The Wright controversy goes into a box and the new narrative of the campaign is that, while the media may be easily distracted, the voters are serious about taking the country in a new direction. Contributions to Clinton slow as “super delegates” swing to Obama –- who already has dozens of “soft” commitments from members of Congress and party leaders who have been waiting for the right moment to “close the deal.” The nomination race is effectively over and Clinton begins preparing for a graceful exit – and a new role as co-chair of the Obama for President campaign. (Remember the one rule with regard to the Clintons in American politics: If they don’t win, they survive to fight another day.)
2. CLINTON WINS INDIANA AND NORTH CAROLINA. She sweeps the white vote in both states – picking up the support of the overwhelming majority of supposedly “undecided” electors who, in reality, were middle-class “moderates” and even “liberals” whose confidence in Obama was shaken by the controversy surrounding his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The former first lady narrows Obama’s lead among pledged delegates only minimally, but she gets something that is more important than delegates: a serious dialogue in the media and among Democrats about whether the young and relatively inexperienced senator from Illinois is up to the rigors of presidential politicking. That dialogue helps Clinton raise the money she needs to compete seriously in coming primaries, build her popular-vote strength and ultimately make a case to unpledged “super delegates” and perhaps even some Obama backers that she alone can deliver a Democratic victory in November. This is not a pretty, nor an easy, moment for Democrats. But it pushes the party toward a confrontation with the painful prospect that the frontrunner for its nomination might not be a frontrunner in the fall. The pounding on Obama grows fiercer and he faces fundamental choices: Does he shift strategy, go for Clinton’s jugular and secure a nomination at great expense to his own “good-guy” image and perhaps his electability? Does he consider a “for-the-good-of-the-party” – and potentially for the good of his own future prospects – reconciliation with Clinton? Or does he call a certain former vice president and open up a conversation about a Gore-Obama ticket?
3. CLINTON AND OBAMA SPLIT INDIANA AND NORTH CAROLINA. Each candidate “scores” a predictable “win” – the New Yorker in an industrialized Middle America state like Ohio; the Illinoisan in a southern state with a large African-American population and a substantial base of college-educated liberals. Both campaigns “spin” their victories. Obama keeps hoping for a “knock-out blow” primary win in a Clinton-friendly state like Kentucky or West Virginia. Clinton starts looking for surprise wins of her own in places like Oregon and Montana. But the formerly unrealistic notion that “this could go all the way to the convention” no longer seems so unrealistic. Talk turns to Clinton strategies to seat delegations chosen in the disputed Michigan and Florida primaries, while the Obama camp parcels out more congressional endorsements. The race gets uglier. There is no end in sight. Everyone goes nuclear as the Democrats confirm that there really is such a thing as “mutually-assured destruction.” Talk-radio’s Rush Limbaugh celebrates the success of his “Operation Chaos,” as organizers of the Democratic National Convention quietly begin to prepare for a convention that might make Chicago in 1968 look like a garden party. And John McCain, never a particularly religious man, begins to count his blessings.
Are there other scenarios? Absolutely. The reason we pay attention to political campaigns is because of their potential to yield unexpected results. This reality has been confirmed again and again since January – just ask “also-ran” John McCain. Or just ask the seers who said that there was no way that May primaries in Indiana or North Carolina would ever matter.