Monday, December 18, 2006

Is America Ready for Clinton vs. Obama?

By Jonathan Alter

Dec. 25, 2006 - Jan. 1, 2007 issue - It felt like the twilight zone in New Hampshire. The calendar still read 2006, but everything about the surging crowd of 1,500 pumped-up Democrats and 160 ravenous political reporters screamed 2008. Here was Barack Obama, less than two years into his Senate term, making his first-ever trip to the state in mid-December, and his sold-out performance before a tumultuous crowd impressed even the most hardened political operatives—though Conan O'Brien joked it was just because New Hampshire had never seen an African-American before.

For decades, the joke there has been that no presidential wanna-be can win support in the fabled primary without meeting each voter one-on-one in his living room. But the 45-year-old Obama, some-times described as "post-racial," was in a category of his own. As his team began to peel away longtime Bill Clinton supporters—former Commerce secretary Bill Daley is strongly onboard and will likely be a senior adviser—the Illinois senator's presidential rollout was working so well in New Hampshire that it raised concerns he could be peaking too soon. The mania, his aides know, cannot be sustained at this level when the real scrutiny begins.

Full of praise for Hillary Clinton, Obama handled himself with his usual offhand baritone cool. He explained that the hype has "less to do with me, more to do with you." His curious audience, he noted, was simply saying, "We are looking for something different—we want something new."

The question is, how new? For 220 years, Americans have elected only white male Christians with no hint of ethnicity to the White House. Even Irish Catholic John F. Kennedy seemed like a WASP to most people. By the time of Rep. Shirley Chisholm's brief run in 1972, then Jesse Jackson's in 1984 and 1988, the country was comfortable with barrier-breaking on the campaign trail, but not yet serious about electing someone truly different.

No one knows yet whether we are serious now, and we won't find out for sure unless it happens. But the record of white males in high places has not exactly been stellar of late, and voters might be in the mood to try something historic and possibly redemptive. A black president in a country that fought a civil war over race might even prove cathartic. And a woman president would show the rest of the world that the United States is not a sexist nation. Whatever happens, the process feels uplifting. If neither Clinton nor Obama wins, it won't necessarily prove the United States is closed-minded. Their failure would likely be the product of their own shortcomings—or the emergence of one of the several white (and one Hispanic) male Democrats who still have a shot at their party's nomination. Early primary states are so hard-wired for upsets that many Democrats could find themselves circling back to the pale males.


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