This is an amazing story. The Democratic Party has a winner. It has a nominee. You know this because he has the most votes and the most elected delegates, and there’s no way, mathematically, his opponent can get past him. Even after the worst two weeks of his campaign, he blew past her by 14 in North Carolina and came within two in Indiana.
He’s got this thing. And the Democratic Party, after this long and brutal slog, should be dancing in the streets. Party elders should be coming out on the balcony in full array, in full regalia, and telling the crowd, “Habemus nominatum”: “We have a nominee.” And the crowd below should be cheering, “Viva Obamus! Viva nominatum!”
Instead, you know where they are, the party elders. They are in a Democratic club on Capitol Hill, slump-shouldered at the bar, having a drink and then two, in a state of what might be called depressed horror. “What are they doing to the party?” they wail. “Why are they doing this?”
You know who they are talking about.
The Democratic Party can’t celebrate the triumph of Barack Obama because the Democratic Party is busy having a breakdown. You could call it a breakdown over the issues of race and gender, but its real source is simply Hillary Clinton. Whose entire campaign at this point is about exploiting race and gender.
Here’s the first place an outsider could see the tensions that have taken hold: on CNN Tuesday night, in the famous Brazile-Begala smackdown. Paul Begala wore the smile of the 1990s, the one in which there is no connection between the shape of the mouth and what the mouth says. All is mask. Donna Brazile was having none of it.
Mr. Begala more or less accused the Obama people of not caring about white voters: “[If] there’s a new Democratic Party that somehow doesn’t need or want white working-class people and Latinos, well, count me out.” And: “We cannot win with eggheads and African Americans.” That, he said, was the old, losing, Dukakis coalition.
“Paul, baby,” Ms. Brazile, who is undeclared, began her response, “we need to not divide and polarize the Democratic Party. . . . So stop the divisions. Stop trying to split us into these groups, Paul, because you and I know . . . how Democrats win, and to simply suggest that Hillary’s coalition is better than Obama’s, Obama’s is better than Hillary’s — no. We have a big party, Paul.” And: “Just don’t divide me and tell me I cannot stand in Hillary’s camp because I’m black, and I can’t stand in Obama’s camp because I’m female. Because I’m both. . . . Don’t start with me, baby.” Finally: “It’s our party, Paul. Don’t say my party. It’s our party. Because it’s time that we bring the party back together, Paul.”
In case you didn’t get what was behind that exchange, Mrs. Clinton spent this week making it clear. In a jaw-dropping interview in USA Today on Thursday, she said, “I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on.” As evidence she cited an Associated Press report that, she said, “found how Sen. Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me.”
White Americans? Hard-working white Americans? “Even Richard Nixon didn’t say white,” an Obama supporter said, “even with the Southern strategy.”
If John McCain said, “I got the white vote, baby!” his candidacy would be over. And rising in highest indignation against him would be the old Democratic Party.
To play the race card as Mrs. Clinton has, to highlight and encourage a sense that we are crudely divided as a nation, to make your argument a brute and cynical “the black guy can’t win but the white girl can” is — well, so vulgar, so cynical, so cold, that once again a Clinton is making us turn off the television in case the children walk by.
“She has unleashed the gates of hell,” a longtime party leader told me. “She’s saying, ‘He’s not one of us.’”
She is trying to take Obama down in a new way, but also within a new context. In the past he was just the competitor. She could say, “All’s fair.” But now he’s the competitor who is going to be the nominee of his party. And she is still trying to do him in. And the party is watching.
Who can save the situation? The superdelegates.
You know them. They’re the ones hiding under the rock, behind the boulder, and at the bar.
They are terrified, most of them. They want the problem to go away. They want it handled, but they don’t want to do it. They don’t want to tell Hillary to stop, because they would likely pay a price for it, and not just with her.
They are afraid of looking as if they’re jumping on a train that’s speeding down the tracks and is about to roll over the damsel in distress.
Which is how Hillary — and her supporters — will paint it. Even though she’s no damsel, and she causes distress.
Some insight from a superdelegate I spoke to Thursday:
It’s not math anymore, it’s psychodrama. If she can’t have it, no one can have it. If she has to tear the party apart, she will.
Nancy Pelosi can’t make her drop out. The Clintons think the speaker is for Obama anyway, her San Francisco district went for him 70% to 30%; they’ll dismiss her. Chuck Schumer can’t do it, he’d offend women in New York. Harry Reid can’t do it, he’ll offend women, period. If black political figures go to the Clintons and make a plea, they’ll be dismissed as Obama partisans.
So who, I asked, can do it?
White women have been Mrs. Clinton’s most reliable base of support and readiest crutch, the superdelegate said. And maybe they’re the only ones who can break through, both to Mrs. Clinton and to the country, and tell her to stop. “If it’s a man, she goes back to gender: Men are always picking on me, you just don’t want women in power. If it’s a black, it’s You betrayed us, how can you call on me to get out after what I’ve done for you? ”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein made a feint in the direction of stopping Hillary this week. Mrs. Clinton should offer a rationale for her continuing the campaign at this point, Ms. Feinstein said.
The superdelegate mentioned Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski. “I can assure you that Sen. Mikulski is 100% behind Clinton,” her office told me. The superdelegate mentioned Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Ellen Malcolm of Emily’s List, the No. 1 political action committee in the country. “They can say, ‘We’ve stood with you, you’ve got true grit, but now you have to go.’”
The question “Who will tell her, who can make her go?” is really the question “Who will save the Democratic Party in 2008?” It cannot be doubted at this point that real damage is being done to its standard-bearer and to all those who will be on the ticket with him.
Maybe the superdelegate is right, and maybe saving the party this year will be women’s work. Maybe the Democratic Party establishment, such as it is, men and women, black and white and all other colors, will rise up together. Maybe that would be a perfect rebuke to race-baiting and gender-gaming.
It will be amazing if someone doesn’t start up that train, someone doesn’t get in the cab, someone doesn’t shout, “All aboard!” But then it’s been an amazing year.