Saturday, June 7, 2008

Swan song with overtures

Today — Day 505 of her historic bid for the presidency — Sen. Hillary Clinton formally affixed the coda to that grueling campaign, conceding victory to Sen. Barack Obama, whose successful maverick challenge for the Democratic nomination put Clinton on the losing side of maybe the most stunning upset in American political history.

“Well, this isn’t exactly the party I planned, but I like the company,” Clinton said to a tumultuous welcome by supporters gathered at the National Building Museum in Washington.

As expected, Clinton began with the obligatories: effectively thanking the members of the Academy, “everyone who poured your hearts and your hopes into this campaign … you have humbled me with your commitment to your country.”

But in no time Clinton made the pivot Democrats have been waiting for, the switch that the Republicans no doubt have dreaded: a full-throated, unambiguous, unparseable endorsement of Team Obama.

“The way to continue our fight now, to accomplish the goals for which we stand, is to take our energy, our passion, our strength, and do all we can to help elect Barack Obama the next President of the United States,” she said. “I endorse him and throw my full support behind him.”

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And Clinton spoke to those of her supporters still inclined toward anger at her defeat, making overtures to them in the context of her making a further contribution to the Democratic cause. “I will work my heart out to make sure that Senator Obama is the next president, and I hope and pray that all of you will join me in that effort.”

The senator from New York thus completed the climbdown from her presidential bid, bringing a dignity and grasp of the moment that pretty much eluded her on Tuesday. Today — one year, four months and eighteen days after beginning her quest — she went some distance to restoring credibility and luster to the Clinton brand, even as that era of Democratic politics was drawing to a close (or at least taking a pause until the 2012 campaign).

The importance of her effort for American women — already being called the crucial demographic for the fall election — wasn’t ignored. “I ran as a daughter who benefited from opportunities my mother never dreamed of,” she said. “I ran as a mother who worries about my daughter’s future, and as a mother who wants to leave all children brighter tomorrows. To build that future I see, we must make sure that women and men alike understand the struggles of their grandmothers and their mothers.”

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What’s still to be decided is how the Obama campaign will make use of Clinton in the general election campaign. Some of Clinton’s statements in the primary season that formally ended today make that at least slightly problematic, whether she’s a surrogate for Obama in the general sense or his running mate. So much vitriol was directed at Obama by the Clinton campaign, so many Clinton soundbites have called into question Obama’s fitness to serve as president, it begs the question of how to undo that damage — how to make peace with the constituencies her campaign has alienated — in the run to the general election in November.

That’s the trouble with the politics of scorched earth: You can’t turn around and immediately start planting seeds in the ground you’ve just burned up.

You can’t make a cat walk backwards. Undoing or minimizing those statements and insinuations made on her behalf will be difficult in the YouTube era, and rest assured the campaign of Republican challenger Sen. John McCain has already started a video library of every Clinton indictment, real or implied, of Obama’s readiness for the Oval Office.

But at least the process of closing those ranks has begun. The reunification of the Democrats is underway. Hillary Clinton lays claim not just to an indelible, historic role as the first credible female candidate for the presidency.

She ends her campaign on a final (if belated) call for reconciliation, and solidifies her reputation as a scrapper, a fighter and, a lot like the figure in that Simon and Garfunkel song, a champion in defeat:

In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down
Or cut him til he cried out in his anger and his shame,
‘I am leaving, I am leaving,
But the fighter still remains’

Image credit: Clinton: Agence France-Presse

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