Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A 'monster' of her very own

Last week the Obama campaign had to contend with dismissing Samantha Power, an Obama foreign policy adviser, for comments made in a Scottish newspaper about Hillary Clinton. Power, who called Clinton a “monster,” was summarily exited from the campaign, much to the delight of Clinton loyalists.

Now, comments by Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro point to Team Clinton having a "monster" situation of its very own, one that showcases the Clinton intent to win the Democratic nomination by any divisive, Republican-inspired means necessary. For bloggers, and surely voters, there's a sense that Clinton believes it takes destroying a Democratic village in order to save it — for herself.

Ferraro — Walter Mondale’s running mate in the 1984 Democratic campaign, twice-failed aspirant for the U.S. Senate, and honorary member of Clinton’s finance committee — was perhaps angrily honest in a story by Jim Farber published last week in the Torrance Daily Breeze.

"I think what America feels about a woman becoming president takes a very secondary place to Obama's campaign - to a kind of campaign that it would be hard for anyone to run against," Ferraro said. "For one thing, you have the press, which has been uniquely hard on her. It's been a very sexist media. Some just don't like her. The others have gotten caught up in the Obama campaign.

"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," she said. "And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."

Ferraro thus undercut the idea of preparation, desire, planning and intellect having anything to do with the ascension of the Obama campaign; in Ferraro's statement was the sense that everything Obama has achieved was best viewed through the narrow lens of race, in the cavalier context of a lucky break.

Clinton tut-tutted the remarks Tuesday, saying only that she disagreed with them. In an Associated Press interview, she called it "regrettable that any of our supporters — on both sides, because we both have this experience — say things that kind of veer off into the personal."

But no, just in case there was any mistake — maybe Ferraro had a slip of the tongue, a momentary lapse of reason — she enlarged on her original comments as she made the rounds of today’s morning talk shows.

Team Clinton refused to, uh, reject or denounce Ferraro’s comments beyond the weak-tea statement offered by the candidate herself.

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Obama, flush with results from Tuesday's rout of Clinton in the Mississippi Primary (and recovering after a contentious session with Chicago reporters over the weekend), was characteristically circumspect.

"Part of what I think Geraldine Ferraro is doing, and I respect the fact that she was a trailblazer, is to participate in the kind of slice and dice politics that's about race and about gender and about this and that, and that's what Americans are tired of because they recognize that when we divide ourselves in that way, we can't solve problems," Obama said on NBC's "Today" show.

By sticking with Ferraro as a fundraiser, and by offering nothing close to a stinging rebuke, Clinton seems to have set a strategy for winning Pennsylvania, with a thinly-veiled appeal to the baser racial instincts assumed to be found in the rural residents of the state — her perceived base, mainly older white men and women with more modest incomes, the white ethnics who live between the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

In the Philadelphia Inquirer’s excellent “Attytood” blog, Will Bunch distills what Team Clinton is apparently up to:

“A sculptor brought in to mold a Hillary Clinton voter would have crafted Geraldine Ferraro from scratch. She's 72 years old now. White. Female. Ethnic. Catholic. Emotionally vested in the idea that a woman should become president in her lifetime. Hailing from the community that was once the face of white middle-class America. Got where she was with the enthusiastic backing of New York big labor. Has views on the role of race in American politics that aren't exactly ready for prime time, but well, hey, once they get out there you can't really put the genie back in the bottle, now can you?

“Pennsylvania is chock full of voters like this, many of them Democrats. … What matters is that the Clinton campaign is convinced that Archie Bunker is voting in Pennsylvania in April 22, and they clearly will not struggle hard to repudiate any idea -- no matter how loathesome -- that can squeeze out a few extra voters in that regard.”

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But it’s a risky strategy for at least three good reasons:

• Ferraro’s comments are likely to galvanize the state’s independent voters, who may see Clinton’s passive-aggressive plan of attack as more of the same divisive politics that made them independents in the first place.

• The comments may well antagonize the state’s Reagan Democrats and moderate Republicans — the people in the rural middle of the state Clinton’s counting on to win. Put off by the overtly racial implications of Clinton’s kitchen-sink strategy (reflecting a way of thinking they may share but would no doubt prefer to keep to themselves), and less than enchanted by the prospect of John McCain, they may be inclined to back Obama as one who shares their principles, if not their party.

• The superdelegates whom Clinton so assiduously courts could be lost to her. Already quietly recognizing Obama’s overwhelming lead in delegate count, states won and popular vote, the superdelegates in Pennsylvania and elsewhere may find in Ferraro’s comments the perfect political cover they need to vacate the Clinton camp with impunity.

And there’s a possible further fallout for Clinton. The Ferraro outburst and Clinton’s indifferent response can be counted on to have repercussions beyond that state. Clinton’s national base of black support, already shrinking in recent months, could wither to nothing in the remaining primary contests. If she is somehow the nominee, that support’s likely to be fragmented and indifferent in the general election.

If she were to lose the presidency in 2008, her chances at rebuilding that black base of support for a run in 2012 would evaporate, right along with any vestiges of the storied Clinton special relationship with black voters.

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Clearly, Clinton’s kitchen-sink-and-fixtures plan isn’t working. Newsweek’s Howard Fineman said that, with Ferraro’s comments, Clinton “just made the kitchen sink bigger, and put more things in it.”

“It’s possible they can’t see what’s happened to their own campaign, in some ways,” Fineman said.

For many voters, though, unreasoned outbursts like this that make it clear why Hillary Clinton can’t be the Democratic nominee. The potential for interparty divisiveness that has been a hallmark of much of her political career has finally transformed into something that reveals her ability — her apparent willingness — to divide loyalties within the very party she hopes to lead against Republicans in the fall.

Jay blogging on Attytood, said “Us black folks liked the Clinton family before this race and supported her in the polling. But then they had to go all racist dogwhistle on us and that support vanished. Folks who don't see or understand how and why that happened are probably Archie Bunker types anyway.”

How all this plays out six weeks from now — whether anyone remembers the Ferraro fury come primary day — is anyone’s guess. But Geraldine Ferraro may well have done for Barack Obama what Barack Obama hasn’t been able to do in Pennsylvania — yet: offer a majority of the state’s voters a clear distinction in campaign styles (and a reason to jettison the politics of racial fear and division), and present superdelegates with a politically palatable last-straw reason for backing Obama, something that many may have wanted to do all along.

And ironically, as Hillary Clinton’s all-or-nothing strategem is developing, Clinton is giving Obama the experience she says he doesn’t have — not the acquired knowledge of contacts and favors, not the rote knowledge of rules of order and procedure on Capitol Hill, but the deeper, bare-knuckles experience of just how dirty politics in Washington can be.

It’ll come as a shock to Team Clinton if, just months from now, the teacher gets beaten by the student.
Update: Geraldine Ferraro has stepped down from her honorary post in Clinton's presidential campaign, The Associated Press reported Wednesday. Ferraro notified Clinton by letter that she would no longer serve on Clinton's finance committee. Campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson said Ferraro left the post under her own power.

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