Sunday, January 27, 2008

Yes, he can

A rout. A thumping. A buttwhipping. Pick your favorite noun to describe an absolute, inescapable vote of confidence in the idea of change, and an equally inescapable repudiation of business as usual.

If you haven’t heard — if you’ve been under a rock a mile underground somewhere — Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois won the South Carolina Democratic primary on Saturday, handily defeating Sen. Hillary Clinton by a huge double-digit margin, and sending the clear unmistakable signal that his campaign is well beyond the quixotic, unrealistic images painted by a Billary Clinton campaign more desperate by the day.

In one day the Obama campaign has made good on its initial pledges of being a truly national effort, by reaching black voters (a given in South Carolina), young voters, women voters, older voters and white male voters in the first real coalition of Americans — not just Democrats — the country’s seen in far too many years.

In one day Barack Obama has done nothing less than recalibrate the Democratic presidential campaign, restating the party agenda with language that soars and inspires, invoking a message that resonates.

In practical terms, it’s a whole new race for the White House.

Hillary Clinton, canny pol that she is, didn’t even bothering waiting around for the postmortem. “Mrs. Clinton’s advisers were minimizing the importance of South Carolina even before polls closed, saying the primaries in Florida on Tuesday and in a swath of states on Feb. 5 were of more importance,” Patrick Healy of the New York Times reported. “But she will have to reckon with the rejection of her candidacy by black voters and the mixed support she received from white Democrats and younger voters here — two groups she must have by her side in order to build a cross-section of support in the coming contests.”

“The Clintons will now have to deal with a perception of hollowness about her strategy, that she is leaving it to her husband to take care of things and allowing him to overshadow her political message,” said Blease Graham, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina told The Times.

“We have the most votes, the most delegates … and the most diverse coalition of Americans that we've seen in a long, long time,” Obama told ecstatic supporters at a rally in Columbia, S.C. “You can see it in the faces here tonight. They are young and old; rich and poor. They are black and white; Latino and Asian and Native American.”

And before Obama hit the stage, and again as he addressed them later, his supporters chanted something that really symbolized the power of his building coalition — the sort of “gorgeous mosaic” that David Dinkins hailed years ago in his successful drive to be the first black mayor of New York City.

“Race doesn't matter! Race doesn't matter!”

◊ ◊ ◊

“We're looking to fundamentally change the status quo in Washington,” Obama said. “And right now, that status quo is fighting back with everything it's got; with the same old tactics that divide and distract us from solving the problems people face.”

"We are up against the idea that it's acceptable to say anything and do anything to win an election," Obama said, in a not-quite-obvious shot at divisive comments made against the senator by former president Bill Clinton, who’s tried to minimize Obama at every turn — even slyly invoking the race card. “We know that this is exactly what's wrong with our politics,” Obama said at the rally. “This is why people don't believe what their leaders say anymore. This is why they tune out. And this election is our chance to give the American people a reason to believe again.”

The crowd roared back, “Yes we can!” 

The way Obama smoked the opposition proved him ready to challenge, in his words, “the assumption that young people are apathetic … the assumption that African-Americans can't support the white candidate; whites can't support the African-American candidate; blacks and Latinos can't come together."

It got better for the junior senator from Illinois before he even left the stage in Columbia. The talking heads at the networks reported that Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, would emerge from a largely private life to make a rare public statement, and an even rarer political endorsement.

“Over the years, I've been deeply moved by the people who've told me they wished they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president,” she wrote in an op-ed in the Sunday's edition of The New York Times. “That is why I am supporting a presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama.”

For Obama, that hosannah from the daughter of Camelot must have been especially sweet coming in the pages of The Times, which endorsed Hillary Clinton for president a few days before.

◊ ◊ ◊

Saturday’s mini-landslide — Obama won by 27 percentage points, single-handedly winning more votes on his own than were cast in the entire South Carolina Democratic primary in 2004 — and the Kennedy endorsement puts the Hillary Clinton campaign in a serious box.

Much has been made of Clinton’s formidable organization: the war chest, the name recognition, the ties to her husband, the most revered Democratic politician in recent memory. It’s these weapons she’ll be calling on between now and Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, a day in which more than 1,600 Democratic delegates will be in play across 22 states, the closest thing to a general election we’ll have before the real thing, exactly nine months later.

But right now, it’s not about fundraising, it’s not about organization, it’s not about the ground game, it’s not about any of the usual, comfortable metrics of American politics. It’s about digging down to reach a spiritually exhausted electorate where they live, deep in their hearts, deep in the soil of their aspirations for something more. Something better.

Despite the Clinton campaign’s past (and no doubt future) attempt to undercut the groundswell of feeling that’s building for Obama, that tidal wave of passion, of emotional connection to a candidate, is building. And there can be no successful drive to the White House without it.

Any attempt by Billary to short-circuit the emotionalism of the Obama campaign will likely fail. The reason why is simple enough: Right now, America wants more than someone to agree with. America wants someone to believe in. With every passing day, with every vote cast, with every nervous pundit, with every new endorsement from unlikely corners, more and more people are starting to believe in Barack Obama.

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