Seeing the forest through the sleaze

May 13, 2008

The media's obsession with the day-to-day campaign horse race is obscuring more fundamental changes in American politics.

ELECTION 2008 has moved on--almost--to a new phase. And that transition is bringing into sharper focus a development in U.S. politics that runs much deeper than the presidential campaign: A general shift to the left, taking place in different ways and showing itself in different forms.

Barack Obama's strong victory in North Carolina and his near-tie with Hillary Clinton in Indiana has all but settled the Democratic presidential nomination.

Afterward, the media establishment pivoted away from its stories about the embattled Obama campaign, and the stream of super-delegates coming out for Obama grew to a pace that should give him a clear convention majority when the votes are counted after the next two primaries, even if Obama loses both.

Clinton herself, of course, has yet to accept this reality. Instead, she managed to disgrace herself again after the vote with a comment to USA Today that "Senator Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again."

The three presidential candidates

No one missed the point. "There is no way," Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson wrote, "you can say in the same sentence, 'hard-working Americans, white Americans,' without diminishing Black Americans as lazy."

It was the latest in a string of racist insults slung around by the Clintons and their subordinates. For several months, their only real hope for winning the nomination has rested on convincing the Democratic super-delegates who hold the balance of power at the convention that Obama was "unelectable" against John McCain. Any argument, no matter how hypocritical or offensive, has been fair game--Obama is the "Black candidate" who can't win votes from whites; he's too radical; he's an elitist; he's too inexperienced.

This strategy has helped feed the conventional wisdom in the media that the hard-fought primary season is damaging Obama as the likely nominee and setting the stage for the Republicans to win in November.

But this misses the forest for the trees. If you look at the bigger picture, the Democrats remain poised at almost every level for an overwhelming victory in 2008--even bigger than the 2006 landslide in which they took back control of Congress.

Sure, the Republicans are sharpening their knives, and they have the Clinton campaign to thank for dragging their lines of attack against Obama into the media. "Swift boat times five," promised a McCain adviser, referring to the slimy Republican operation in 2004 to attack John Kerry's war record in favor of the draft-dodger-in-chief.

But the claim that Obama has been shown to be vulnerable because he hasn't won "big" states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and California doesn't add up--and for a simple reason: The votes that went against Obama in the primaries aren't necessarily votes for John McCain in the fall.

Opinion polls do show a growing number of primary voters who say they'll vote for McCain if the candidate they support doesn't get the Democratic nomination. But by November, voters' attitudes will have been shaped for months by conclusions drawn not during the primary season, but during the contest between Obama and McCain--a man who still supports the Bush administration on the Iraq war and whose response to the worsening recession is to call for more tax cuts for the rich.

Even the idea that Obama is weak among white working-class voters is more a media invention than anything else.

"It's true that there are some whites who will not vote for a Black candidate under any circumstance," New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote. "But the United States is in a much better place now than it was when people like Richard Nixon, George Wallace and many others could make political hay by appealing to the very worst in people, using the kind of poisonous rhetoric that Senator Clinton is using now."

HERBERT'S STATEMENT touches on a more general theme that is plain enough to see when the media commentators pull their head out of the back and forth of the campaign. As Jim VandeHei and David Paul Kuhn wrote in the inside-the-Beltway-oriented Politico:

In case you've been too consumed by the Democratic race to notice, Republicans are getting crushed in historic ways, both at the polls and in the polls.

At the polls, it has been a massacre. In recent weeks, Republicans have lost a Louisiana House seat they had held for more than two decades, and an Illinois House seat they had held for more than three...

In the polls, they are setting records (and not the good kind). The most recent Gallup Poll has 67 percent of voters disapproving of President Bush; those numbers are worse than Richard Nixon's on the eve of his resignation. A CBS News poll taken at the end of April found only 33 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the GOP--the lowest since CBS started asking the question more than two decades ago. By comparison, 52 percent of the public has a favorable view of the Democratic Party.

There are many more indicators that show the same thing, taking place within the confines of mainstream politics and more broadly outside of it--a political shift to the left as a consequence of the crackup of the Bush administration and the right-wing agenda it pressed ahead with for the past seven years.

At one level, Obama's success in getting this far down the road to the White House in a country that was built on racism is, by itself, an indication of a change in U.S. society. Polls today show that the number of people who would never vote for a Black candidate for president has fallen as low as 3 percent.

This shift in attitudes has been underway for years, but others have emerged because of the campaign and the excitement that has built up around both Democrats, Obama in particular. As the Indianapolis Star noted, "[W]hile many Democrats fear the sniping between Obama and Clinton will leave their party divided and weakened, imagine how many activists, volunteers and young supporters this process has created."

Then there's the crisis of the Republicans. This is another piece of evidence: The utter irrelevance of George Bush--supposedly, the "most powerful man in the world."

Bush is treated like a lame duck because of the spiraling crisis of the economy, the disastrous occupation and the discrediting of the right's policies of divide and conquer. The vast majority of people in the U.S.--including a majority of the ruling establishment, whether in Corporate America or in Washington--expect something different from the next president.

No wonder John McCain is trying in every way he can to distance himself from the Bush administration and its record. The whole tone of the campaign is different from 2004, when Bush ran as a "wartime president" and John Kerry continued the Democrats' GOP Lite strategy of following the Republicans to the right.

Nevertheless, Obama's rhetoric, as appealing as it clearly is to millions of people, isn't matched by his actions or his political positions--and that's been clear during the primary season, too.

It's preposterous that Clinton--a multi-millionaire and as secure an inhabitant of the Washington political elite as anyone in American politics--can present herself as a "fighter" for working people. But Obama never challenged Clinton's pose--because he is in basic agreement with Clinton on almost every issue.

Thus, when Clinton joined McCain in pushing for a "gas tax holiday" this summer, Obama didn't challenge her by demanding a measure that would punish the oil company profiteers instead. Rather, he acted as the "responsible" adult, warning about government deficits--which was no doubt reassuring to the growing ranks of business interests getting behind his campaign.

For many Obama supporters, even those volunteering to work for his campaign, the contradiction between their candidate's rhetoric and his actual politics is understood. They will almost certainly vote for Obama in November, but in many cases, they will be open--after and before the election--to discussions about this gap, and what else needs to be done to win the changes they want to see in politics and society.

THE IMPACT of political developments outside mainstream politics is even more important to understand.

Grassroots struggles never stop completely for elections, and they are even less likely to now, when the issues that people want to organize around are so urgent. The last several weeks alone have seen important protests and fightbacks, some small and some not-so-small--May Day immigrant rights marches around the country, a rapid response protest against ICE raids in the Bay Area, outbursts of protest in New York City against the not-guilty verdict in the trial of the police officers who killed Sean Bell.

But even where the sentiment for change doesn't find an immediate expression in activism, there are openings for dialogue and debate--in other words, the building blocks of the struggles to come, no matter who sits in the White House.

Many people who are looking forward to the end of the Republicans and the promise of a new administration will vote for Obama with enthusiasm, but their political interests don't begin and end with that vote. They can be open to a discussion about issues that go well beyond what Obama is willing to talk about.

The crackup of the right-wing political agenda and the impact of the social and economic crisis must inevitably open up new questions for greater numbers of people--and that presents opportunities for engaging those people on the question of what needs to be done and how to do it.

It will be important for socialists and activists to not miss these chances to build relationships--both for the short and long term--with people becoming radicalized by the world around them.

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