A pre-post-Clintonian mortem

First off, I am quite happy to see this today:

Hillary Rodham Clinton will concede Tuesday night that Barack Obama has the delegates to secure the Democratic nomination, campaign officials said, effectively ending her bid to be the nation’s first female president.

The former first lady will stop short of formally suspending or ending her race in her speech in New York City. She will pledge to continue to speak out on issues like health care. But for all intents and purposes, the two senior officials said, the campaign is over.

My happiness is not for the reasons you might think, mind you — at least not entirely.

If you’ve followed my various comments over the months on the extended primary race here — which I do think ultimately has been good to see on a number of fronts, in terms of working against preset narratives and in showing how political dynamics can and do function even in a fairly stodgy republican democracy like ours — you’ve doubtless sensed that while I haven’t come out and said ‘hurrah’ for anyone in particular, I’ve been kindly inclined towards Barack Obama all this time. Over on ILE just now, Alfred summed up his thoughts this way: “I don’t lean towards Obama because he represents “change” – I consider him a pol with uncanny rhetorical gifts, of an attractive coolness, and incarnates a liberalism which will be a novelty in the Oval Office.” I find this both accurate and not — Obama does represent a very specific change in terms what can be expected and accepted in the political and social sphere in this country, and that is not something to be ignored in the slightest. It is not simply a matter of window-dressing. But Obama is indeed a very sharp politician who uses his gifts more wisely than most and to often devastating effect against opponents, and I think the run-up to November will be fascinating for that reason, though he’s not going to coast to a victory, not yet.

So there’s a happiness in that I think a very solid Democratic candidate is up against a Republican one whose problems with his party’s most obnoxious elements have been entertaining me for a long while. There’s also a happiness in settling uncertainties on one front even while the long stretch ahead — five months to go! — puts a lot of things still into play. (Iraq, for instance, is seemingly quieter — but there’s much more going on than might be sensed.) But there’s also a simple happiness in seeing a clearly intelligent person who has her own political gifts, and who appreciates policy wonkery, stop making a total fool of herself.

That sounds harsh, I realize. Yet there’s really been no other way to look at it over the past few months. That Obama’s had to make adjustments in the face of antagonism both from Clinton and the GOP is his own burden to bear — the Wright flapdoodle is a prime example (and reminds me about why I’m really uninterested in spiritual leaders as a personal political requirement as such — can’t say I ever remember anyone caring about Reagan’s pastor, for instance, or Carter’s for that matter; I’m not electing a pope or priest even by proxy). But in contrast the only word that can be used to describe Clinton’s approach, most readily seen via her various representatives and ads and the like, would be ‘flailing.’ Not constantly, by any means, but there was always this sense of that camp being spooked, angered, annoyed, that a cool professionalism was being constantly undercut by a near-atavistic explosion of concern.

It’s that loss of cool professionalism which has been the most wince-inducing thing to see happen. Compared to the ranters and goaders out there in the political world, Clinton’s a model of restraint, but in context, the picture that came together over time was something else again. McCain barely had to move for the past few months, of course, so he just skipped along. Obama figured out that acting like the nominee after a certain point would create its own reality and that’s paid him dividends. Clinton had to fight both and…well, we now know.

This all said, there’s a big reason why it was extremely good for everyone why she went through this wringer, namely because it exposed and, hopefully, discredited a cynicism at the heart of her campaign inherited from a certain person she’s married to as well as the team that’s worked for them both. The self-casting of the Clintons as liminal figures — friendly towards certain kinds of liberalisms but trying to show themselves as people who wouldn’t upset the apple cart — isn’t actually that far removed from Obama’s own modus operandi, but Obama’s persona is shaped around a key point: “Hey, America — I am who I am. Deal. Disagree, but deal, and let’s see what we can all do.” From Clinton’s side, their message was, “Look who I’m NOT. And I’ll always nod and wink towards your preconceptions about that.”

Clinton’s depressing series of ads over the weeks fighting against Obama underscored this fundamentally obnoxious approach, with its not-very-implicit codings about race, age and, especially with time, gender (this was actually the most fascinating part of it all, but would require more thought than I have time to go into). Clinton disappeared into this morass of dismal attitudes that just seemed to confirm a lot of the worst fears and assumptions about where we are supposed to be in the evolving experiment that is this country, where we can and do still see the extension of the core idea — freedom and opportunity for all — ever more expanded outward from the limiting conception of it in the late eighteenth century. That the GOP has long been trapped by such cynicism about this core point is its own unshakeable burden; that Clinton replicated it in full is just ridiculous. That Obama kept going forward sunny side up was, in retrospect, not merely a stroke of political genius but gave a tangibility to hope, to change as positive, against a retrenching.

I honestly hope that Clinton doesn’t retreat and disappear. She has intelligence, awareness, a gift of communication in her own right and is no more or less interested in the prospects of power than anyone else in the game. Also, no less so than Obama’s candidacy, the mere fact that she was in the running says something about this country — the Democratic candidate was going to be one or the other of them, and either way a string of assumptions over who was electable in this country to its most primary role was going to be exploded forever, and thank goodness for it. If anything, I hope she finds a point somewhere in the future — sooner, not later — where she simply says, “You know, I was wrong — I didn’t do this like I could have or should have, and I know why.” Maybe not in those words, certainly. But if there’s room for it, let it happen — I was, I think in retrospect rightly, taken slightly to task by Nari a while back when I expressed a strong cynicism of my own in respect to a McCain advisor leaving his team because he felt that Obama’s candidacy represented something promising and positive that he would not wish to oppose. In politics, some cynicism — or maybe more accurately, awareness of cynicism — is required. But the cynicism itself should not always be automatic.

In any event, this particular primary campaign is concluded for all practical purposes, and there will be studies, analyses, books, whatever. Let them come, and let it, perhaps, be an object lesson for the future. It could well be an important one — and maybe more positive will have come out of the Clinton campaign than might have been guessed.

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