Smile Politely

In Upcoming Democratic Primaries, “Politics as Usual” Takes the Stand

On a day-to-day basis, there’s plenty of “politics as usual” to go around, but in the grand scheme of presidential candidate nomination seasons, this has been anything but a “politics as usual” electoral stretch.

On the Republican side, we watched four men duke it out: a Mormon, an occasional cross-dresser, the bass player for Capitol Offense and (until recently, at least) a staunch critic of religious right activists like the late Jerry Falwell. Collectively, those four were hardly standard Republican presidential fare. As we know, the critic — John McCain, that is — won out. He’s staked his campaign on the idea that the “war” in Iraq must continue indefinitely (though most Americans disagree) until America achieves success (though neither McCain nor anyone in the administration of McCain’s new ally, George W. Bush, has managed to offer a definition — or even a rough sketch — of what exactly “success” will look like). One of the great ironies here is that McCain, the “More-War Would-Be Prez,” can’t even keep straight who our enemies should be. Iran is Iraq and Sunnis are Shi’a — and meanwhile gas prices here at home continue to rise and the economy continues to falter and, believe it or not, the iron-fisted guy who can’t get his Muslim sects straight also admitted that economics isn’t his forte. The lines between the Republican nominee and the current Republican president continue to blur.

But if 2008’s been a little unusual on the right side of the ring, then it’s been downright exceptional on the left. In one corner, we have the first black presidential hopeful to actually have a reason to be hopeful. In the other, we have the first woman presidential hopeful to actually have a reason to be hopeful. For the first time in forty years, a politician was able to use an immense media spotlight to speak honestly about race in America. For the first time ever, a former First Lady has forced us to think seriously about the notion of our first First Gentleman.

And for all this, the Democratic party, which seemed to have the presidential race wrapped up even before it started, now faces the threat of genuine implosion. McCain is holding his own against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in most national polls, and as each Democratic candidate goes for the knock-out punch, McCain has little to do but sit back, chuckle at his own gaffes as they gain only scant media attention and hone his talking points for the general election.

Meanwhile, the sparring Democratic candidates are taking off their gloves.

The threat to the Democratic party doesn’t come particularly from Clinton supporters swearing to defect if Obama wins and Obama supporters vowing the same — though there will certainly be some lingering resentment in the fall. Instead, the cause for alarm comes from the incessant assault on Democratic (and democratic) ideals that the race is leveraging.

After all, this is the party that, in essence, believes that in society individual health (broadly speaking) is inextricably linked to the well-being of the whole American posse, from sea to shining sea. So it’s the government’s purpose and obligation to ensure that the system is not abused or misused in a way that solely benefits any one individual or subgroup.

The fundamental philosophical disjoint, then, comes from the Clinton corner, where (as has happened many times in our political past) the value of the whole electorate and the system designed to serve that electorate is being continually redefined and undermined in an effort to benefit one person: Hillary Clinton. Primaries in Michigan and Florida were off limits until they offered Clinton a glimmer of hope, so she changed directions and went for ’em. Pledged delegates began as the benchmark for Clinton as well as everybody else. When this tradition proved irksome, Clinton shifted emphasis to the popular vote, which also proved unfavorable to her, so she now speaks from the Pulpit of the Superdelegate, which she once disavowed, while also reminding Obama’s pledged delegates that, technically, they can ignore the mandate of public will and vote for her anyway. While Clinton holds a slim superdelegate lead (around 25 delegates, by most counts), the balance is quickly tipping in Obama’s favor, and Obama leads in all other categories. In other words, by nearly every measuring stick Clinton’s behind or sinking, and yet she’s vowing to take this thing to the Democratic National Convention in late August.

With no way to win, but no intention to admit loss, Clinton is setting up her party to be the big loser. A Democratic race that began with the very messages of change, redemption and responsibility that so many party members were searching for has devolved into a showdown so typical of Washington politicians. And this is where the real threat to the party exists: The principles of the party are now on full display and well within reach, and there’s a chance that if the party turns away from those principles now, it may surrender them (and the party) for good.

In Clinton, we see flagrant hypocrisies (Who whined first?), bitter ironies (Who’s calling who elite?), convenient equivocations (What exactly is that NAFTA stance?) — basically, the Bush-league tactics that respond to public will with the same response recently uttered by Vice President Dick Cheney when pressured on the public’s opinion: “So?”

In an unusual political season — one that may become even more unusual and, to Democrats, more incredible, if the presiding nominee rises to that position with the help of well over a million voters and without a dime from special interests — we hear Hillary Clinton saying, “Not so fast.” She reminds us that too often politics is not about the will of the people, but rather the will of a person — and this leads to butting heads, to ill feelings and, as we now see 24–7 on CNN and MSNBC, to stagnancy. Yes, “politics as usual” remains a resilient force.

But tomorrow in Pennsylvania, and in two weeks in North Carolina and Indiana, Democratic voters have the opportunity to do one of two things: enact a sudden surge in Clinton’s direction or push Obama into the ranks of inevitability. But what they’ll be helping to decide is truly more than just a name on a ballot; they’ll be defining a set of principles that will guide the party from here onward. Unite and elevate or divide and conquer? Substance or trash talk? Public good or personal gain? The shape of tomorrow’s Democratic party will likely be determined by the decisions its members — including the presidential nominees themselves — make in the coming weeks.

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