Oval Office Thunderdome: Return of the Dixiecrats

No one knows what will happen on Super Tuesday. More than likely, though, one of the Republican candidates will have their party’s nomination securely in hand. John McCain has all the momentum in the world, and despite all the rancor he raises among many conservative ideologues, his once-dead campaign seems capable of taking advantage of the breakdown in GOP solidarity. That is, his appearance of sincerity and genuineness contrasts starkly with Mitt Romney’s lack of authenticity. Romney will win the reddest of the red states, but the primaries aren’t about red and blue. The more populous states along the coast, and the least conservative, have quite a bit of weight to throw around on Tuesday, and McCain should do well in those contests, all but putting him over the top in delegates.

On the Democratic side, the ceasefire declared by the Clinton and Obama campaigns, as evidenced by their over-the-top politeness to each other during last week’s debate in Los Angeles, is a welcome respite from a rare return to the Democratic Party’s old politics of the deep south.

Ever since Lyndon Johnson handed the south to the GOP when he pushed civil rights legislation through Congress during his presidency, it has been Republicans who have specialized in the politics of race, hiding behind code words, innuendo, and voter suppression laws to gain and hold onto power below the Mason-Dixon line. What happened in the run-up to the South Carolina Democratic primary was not nearly as severe as politics in the south can get where blacks are concerned, but injecting race into the debate, even slyly, created a pall of sleaziness and disgust that handed the contest to Barack Obama.

Bill Clinton is a brilliant and calculating politician. He is a survivor. In the darkest days of his presidency, the first to suffer impeachment in 130 years, he managed to not only weather the storm, but saw a Speaker and a Speaker-elect of an opposition House of Representatives resign a month apart, partly victims of their own marital infidelities.

Bill Clinton is a mathematician and a salesman. He can read the mood of the electorate and tap into its basest emotions. He is concerned little with mandates, but consumed by the pursuit of victory. It is this that led him to seize control of his wife’s campaign in South Carolina, and institute a scorched-earth policy to secure a victory, any victory, no matter how slim and costly, to give Hillary the momentum that three straight primary and caucus victories would have. But he, and Hillary, miscalculated.

Pouncing on an opponent’s gaffes is par for the course in politics. And Barack Obama can take a share of the blame for the mudslinging in South Carolina, but times have changed. When Barack Obama agrees that Ronald Reagan’s presidency fostered change in the nation, or that the GOP had been the party of ideas since they took Congress in 1995, he was stating fact, not basking in the glow of conservative triumph. When the Clintons, but especially Bill, toured South Carolina distorting those comments, even lying about them, they made the news and they made the blogs, like they expected. But new media allows voters to compare and contrast fact versus spin like never before. Instead of Barack Obama coming off like a pseudo-Republican, Bill and Hillary came off as opportunistic liars.

Were that the worst the Clintons could do.

However, Bill introduced code words into the contest, such as framing Obama’s wide lead in polls as comparable, and as meaningless to the wider elections, as Jesse Jackson’s victories in South Carolina in the ’80’s. The message was clear. Clinton was seeking to remind voters that a vote for Obama is indeed a vote for a black man. The risk he ran was that white voters, some repulsed by the idea of voting for a black candidate, would instead vote for Hillary. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Obama came away with a majority of votes and delegates, widening what was previously a slim lead in the polls. The backlash against the Clintons was palpable. The black support for Obama was overwhelming. African Americans could have seen the Clintons trying to sabotage the best hope for their race in 40 years, and rejected the Clintons in droves. Other voters could have seen the new co-campaign of Bill and Hillary as affirmation that a Clinton victory in November would also mean a co-presidency. As popular as Bill Clinton remains in the Democratic Party, whatever nostalgia there is for the comparatively carefree times of the ’90’s, the man wore out his welcome. It appears the voters recoiled at this end run around the 22nd Amendment.

The vicious rhetoric also reminded voters that the Clintons never have, nor will they ever seek, any mandate beyond what assures them victory, and people know that another 50% to 49% presidential contest in November does the country little good. The mantra of this campaign, from every candidate, is change. But with the Clintons, what we have is a continuance of the divisive politics that have so damaged the country these past years. The fact that Bill Clinton felt the need to invoke some aspects of racial politics to try and win, going against his own personal beliefs and morals, shows that they are not interested in sustaining the forward motion of the nation, nor of respecting the increased sophistication of the electorate. It is a shame, as there is probably no one, Democrat or Republican alike, who is more qualified to be president than Hillary Clinton. But she will never transcend hyper-partisanship with Bill hanging about her neck like an albatross.