Is Clintonism coming to an end?

March 7, 2008

HILLARY CLINTON lived to fight another day with a strong showing in the March 4 primary elections in Ohio and Texas--contests that looked like they might settle the Democratic presidential nomination in favor of Barack Obama.

Defying opinion poll trends showing a tighter race, Clinton won Ohio by a wide margin, and as of early Wednesday morning, she was ahead in a close race in Texas. Despite suffering 11 straight defeats over the preceding four weeks, many by humiliating margins, Clinton and her staff euphorically insisted that it was a "whole new ballgame," and that the March 4 outcome showed they were winning the "states that counted."

The spin from both sides will come fast and thick in the coming days, but for now, it appears that the Democrats' endless primary season still has no ending--and there is a month and a half before the next major contest, in Pennsylvania on April 22.

Still, even with victories in Ohio and Texas, Clinton will have a very hard time overcoming Obama's lead in delegates won in the Democratic primaries and caucuses. That means her hope to get the nomination would rest on an increasingly unlikely united show of support from uncommitted party leaders who, as superdelegates, hold the balance of power at the Democrats' less-than-democratic convention.

The other possibility is an underhanded maneuver to seat pro-Clinton delegations from Florida and Michigan, which held early primary elections that broke the rules set up by the national party leadership--with the approval, at the time, of Clinton's own top aides.

No one should underestimate the lengths the Clintons will go to win. That's been evident throughout the primaries, and it continued in the run-up to March 4, with Clinton praising John McCain, of all people, for his vast political experience in order to draw a contrast with the supposedly inexperienced Obama. Clinton at one point even half-pandered to the Internet rumor about Obama's alleged Muslim background.

Nevertheless, unless something drastic takes place--and it could--Clinton remains an underdog. And among Democratic Party leaders without a commitment to either camp, there is a growing urgency to have the nomination process done with so they can get on with battling the Republicans in the general election. They could tilt more to Obama.

So it's still better than even money that we are seeing the final days of Clinton's presidential ambitions. But even if that plays out, it's far too early to say the same about Clintonism and its hold on the Democratic Party.

BEHIND THE spin, Clinton and her top handlers are clearly stunned that the "inevitable" nomination has slipped away from them. Yet the reason has everything to do with her campaign message from the start--that she was the Democrat with the experience and know-how to take charge in the White House "from day one," as she insisted over and over.

But all the attacks on Obama as inexperienced and untested simultaneously underline Clinton's greatest weakness with voters --the fact that she is a creature of the Washington political system, which has done so little for the vast majority of people in the U.S.

The unprecedented turnouts for the Democratic primaries are the product of the collapse of the Bush presidency and the right-wing agenda. But within the Democratic Party, Obama's surging support is evidence of a rejection of the political status quo associated with Clinton, including the policies of triangulation and pandering to the right pursued by her and Bill Clinton for more than a decade.

Obama has been the beneficiary of this underlying shift in the U.S. politics--deep anger with what has taken place over the 2000s and a thirst for real change. But once you look past Obama's undeniably powerful rhetoric, the substance of his political positions and proposals are far from radical. They are entirely in keeping with the mainstream of a party that U.S. business has no problem with.

Take the North American Free Trade Agreement. At their most recent debate, Obama and Clinton took turns promising to "renegotiate" NAFTA, and threatening to pull out if they didn't get their way. The two were vying for votes in Ohio, where NAFTA has been used as an excuse by U.S. companies closing down factories and moving production overseas--although the truth is that Mexican workers and farmers have suffered far more under NAFTA.

Within days, Canadian newspapers reported that staffers from both campaigns had contacted government officials to downplay the anti-NAFTA statements as campaign "messaging...[that] should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans," as one Canadian official wrote in a memo after allegedly meeting with an Obama aide.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. Despite his tough talk about NAFTA, Obama has a record as a "free trader." During his 2004 Senate campaign, he spoke out for more trade deals like NAFTA and hailed the "enormous benefits having accrued" to Illinois from the agreement, according to an Associated Press report.

The same gap between rhetoric and reality is evident on other issues. On the Iraq war, Obama has moved toward more dramatic-sounding statements in favor of withdrawal. But according to the fine print, he intends to keep a permanent presence of U.S. troops in Iraq for a variety of missions, including taking action against so-called "terrorist targets"--and he promises to increase the number of U.S. troops carrying out the "other occupation," in Afghanistan.

The enthusiasm for Obama's campaign has been a breath of fresh air after years in which the Washington system was run by Karl Rove's attack dogs on one hand and the Clintons' attack dogs on the other. Obama is also primarily responsible for the fact that millions of people are looking forward to the election and a new presidency with a sense of hope and expectations of real change.

But when it comes to judging what Obama stands for politically, he agrees with Clinton on much more than he disagrees.

And--though you would never know it to judge from the candidates or the media that cover them--Obama and Clinton together share more in common with their Republican counterparts in Washington than they do with the millions of people who hope a Democratic president will do something to change the status quo.

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