Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Late returns from North Carolina

Media rule No. 1: Unexpected news always trumps expected news, no matter how big a splash the expected news makes. The campaign of Hillary Clinton discovered that the hard way on Wednesday, by way of two surprising endorsements for the campaign of Barack Obama.

No, we’re not talking about the College Democrats superdelegate endorsement via YouTube. That was bad enough. We’re not even talking about the seven other superdelegate endorsements from party leaders in Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Michigan who emerged on Wednesday. Or the surprise announcement by Clinton superdelegate Brad Ellsworth, who told CQ that he cast his personal vote in the May 6 Indiana primary for Clinton. "It's just my personal preference in the primary," he said.

Big as those announcements were, they were dwarfed by the endorsement for Team Obama by the political action committee of NARAL-Pro Choice for America, the nation’s leading abortion-rights organization.

"We are confident that Barack Obama is the candidate of the future,” said NARAL President Nancy Keenan in a statement. “Americans are tired of the divisive politics of the last eight years, and will unite behind Obama in the fall. We look forward to working with a pro-choice Obama White House in January."

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It gets better, or at least in media-splash terms, bigger. Apparently, while Hillary Clinton was completing one in a series of interviews with broadcast news poobahs (Katie Couric of CBS and Brian Williams of NBC, among them), the news was leaking out:

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who’d been quietly keeping his powder dry and husbanding the 18 delegates who committed to him before he quit the race in January, ended the drama and endorsed Obama, at a campaign event that brought Obama and Edwards together on the same stage at a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“The reason I am here tonight,” Edwards said, “is that the Democratic voters in America have made their choice, and so have I.”

“There is one man who knows and understands that this is a time for bold leadership … there is one man who knows in his heart that it’s time to create one America, not two, and that man is Barack Obama.”

“When this nomination battle is over — and it will be over soon, brothers and sisters — we must come together as Democrats and in the fall stand up for what matters in America and make America what it needs to be,” Edwards said.

Team Clinton took its characteristic hang-tough route. “We respect John Edwards,” said Clinton campaign chairman and eternal optimist Terry McAuliffe in a statement issued by the campaign, “but as the voters of West Virginia showed last night, this thing is far from over.”

It was a waste of good spin. There’s no way to minimize the significance of Edwards’ impeccably-timed declaration on the day after Obama’s deep-double-digit defeat in West Virginia. What Obama gains is considerable: Edwards’ track record as a populist, his profile in a Southern state likely to be contested in the fall — and, yes, his status as one of the white males in the sweet spot of a much-needed Obama campaign demographic. All huge plusses for Team Obama in the runup to Tuesday’s Kentucky and Oregon primaries.

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And more. You could see it on the stage in Grand Rapids. Visually, Obama and Edwards look great together. That moment of high political theater may well have sent another message: that any talk of an Obama-Clinton ticket might well be finished, that Obama needn’t feel obligated to freight his presidential bid with the trainloads of negative baggage that would accompany Hillary Clinton on the ticket.

“Obama-Edwards” has a nice ring, and the crowd in Grand Rapids knew it. Such a pairing would yield a nice geographic balance, a striking biracial balance, and would help drive a stake through the heart of attempts to marginalize Obama as “the black candidate” — something likely to be helpful to Obama in the Kentucky primary.

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And something more (the punditburo might bounce this issue around tomorrow). This was its own thunderclap across the political landscape. This was seismic. There's a potential to the Edwards endorsement we don't know the dimensions of yet.

Consider the signal this endorsement sends. To white male voters generally and those in Southern states specifically. To those who'd trot out the divisive Jeremiah Wright shibboleth again. To those who doubt the depth of the nation's fast-evolving demographic mosaic. To those skeptics who say Obama doesn't have the reach and appeal of a truly national candidate strong enough to withstand the Republicans waiting in the distance. To a nation weary to its bones of the schisms of race and class. To a world waiting breathlessly to see what we do in November.

Depending on any number of variables, if such a ticket were to materialize and to win in the fall, it could be the sharpest, the most transforming and defining distillation of this nation's values and principles in generations.

You can hear the Clinton crew now, refreshing itself with that other mothers' milk of politics: Hello, room service? Send strong black coffee … lots ... and keep it coming. But it won't help. Nothing will, now. Politics is as much perception as policy — in American politics, sometimes more perception than policy. The Edwards endorsement, and at least the visual prospect of an Obama-Edwards ticket has sent Team Hillary back to the whiteboards, spinning furiously, faced with reacting to another version of the national map, or the national mood, than they'd planned for.
Image credit: Coffee: Julius Schorzman, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License 2.0.

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