“No pushing in, quit pushing,” yelled the queue marshal at the line snaking round the California State University gym. “Some of these people have been here all night”.
All night? To see Hillary Clinton? God almighty, people are really sucking the methadone rag of politics now. As Super Tuesday looms close, and with the Democratic race down to two, emotions are beginning to boil over.
Today’s Hillarally at California State has as many people outside as there are in the huge auditorium, necessitating a sort of conveyer belt system, whereby the speakers at the rally proper – a half-dozen actors kicking us off, from Christine Lahti to Sally Field – are then shuffled outside to keep the crowd warmed up so they won’t go away pissed off. With people sprawled over the landscaped hills and rocks of the campus on this glassy California morning, it was difficult not to think of the sermon on the mount.
The Democratic campaign kicked up a notch last week, when John Edwards announced his withdrawal from the race, two days before CNN’s Democratic candidate’s debate. Speculation is still rife as to Edwards’s motives – was he protecting his rep from a dumper on Super Tuesday, or from the humiliation of being most likely virtually ignored in the debate? Did he want to tip things Obama’s way, because he loathes the Clintons, or – a minority opinion – tip it Clinton’s way because her programme is leftish of Obama?
There is even the faint possibility that he did it for the good of his party and his country. That, at any rate, has been the effect of it, because by some strange alchemy the Democrat race suddenly became intensely exciting, even for one as jaded with these two centre-right corporate-moneyed-up f-ckers as I. The sudden exit of the white male made it all real – that the Democrats would be sending either a woman or a black man to most likely be the next American president.
With Edwards still in the race, deep in the back of everyone’s mind was the haunting idea that after six months of three-way struggle some bunch of faceless men would just come in and say “yeah, ok, a lotta fun but a woman? A black? Sorry”. Edwards’ withdrawal concretised the difference between what the Democrats were offering and what the Republicans are offering. There are major enough policy differences – on Iraq, healthcare etc – but the new line-up of the teams suddenly makes crystal the utterly disjunctive nature of the Democrat-Republican split.
The Republican debate at the Reagan library last week was like a drinks party at the 19th hole bar of the Crestwood Country Club golf course – four old codgers sitting around solving the problems of America over a coupla scotches, and affirming that it’s steady as she goes. Ron Paul could have been expected to give a bit of life, but he’s a diffident man without a great deal of personal impact. Huckabee had more energy but he is, of course, engagingly nuts. It was really down to Dad McCain and Mr Rotary slugging it out to see who will go up against the black kid and the chick in November.
In the Democratic debate, with Edwards out of the way, the energy flowed differently, certainly more cordially. Was this strategic? I don’t think so. I think the dynamic had simply changed , and a new sense of focus had appeared. After all, it’s in the interests of both to really tear the other down before Super Tuesday, and Clinton wasn’t holding back any at her rally: “I think the Democratic Party should refuse to nominate anyone who doesn’t believe in universal health care”, a clear dig at Obama’s plan for an extension of private health insurance, which would still leave 18 million people uncovered. A fair dig, but seeing it as a crucial distinction means believing that Hillary will deliver on universal cover, and that is a very big “if”.
The crucial question in the Democratic debate came before the end – would either candidate accept a Clinton-Obama, or an Obama-Clinton ticket. “Well,” said Obama with his dry wit, “there’s a bit of difference between the two”. Both used circumlocution to get around a yes or no – “I think Hillary would be on anyone’s vice-presidential list” – and it is unlikely that either would offer the other the spot. Or was unlikely. Clinton would never accept it, but would she offer it to Obama? The idea of a Clinton-Obama ticket is so salivatingly exciting to so many that it might just be irresistible. Would Obama accept it? At the age of 46, it would make sense, setting up for a potential sixteen years of Democratic leadership.
But of course there’s no guarantee that such a ticket would be a slam-dunk. It seems so, but not to the vast swathes of people across the country who re-elected Dubya, including the millions who were voting against their own interests. The failure of foreign and domestic policy is so clear now that many of these people will switch back, but the haunting question for the Democrats is how many white men and women out there simply would not come at a woman or a black man as President? It’s not 1984, when Fritz Mondale’s selection of Geraldine Ferraro sent people into conniptions, but nor is it Scandinavia, where chicks basically run the joint. Would either candidate hedge their bets, and select some white southern governor, to round up the strays?
No-one really knows how these different factors will come into play, but the Republicans are caught in a fine dilemma, since the only candidate that could grab these people back would be John McCain, the Petro Georgiou of the GOP. If, as they would wish to do, they select Mitt Romney, and he went up against Clinton-Obama, then I suspect the Republicans would be up for their greatest two-party competition defeat since Barry Goldwater got 34% of the vote in 1964.
The Republicans in Congress seem to believe that too. In a system where – if you can believe it – incumbents pretty much get the opportunity to draw their own electoral boundaries – election to the House is pretty much a life term. Twenty Republicans have announced that they will not stand, and that figure will cascade over the next, oh god, ten months. The rats are getting out of Dodge, and Dubya’s last ten months is going to be the lamest of lame duck administrations in history, unless he bombs Iran.
So okay, I’m excited. And I have to say that a Clinton-Obama ticket seems to be the go. Gritting one’s teeth at the emerging dynastic nature of American politics – a feeling exacerbated by the excitement around the endorsements by Ted Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy, the son of legendary Latino labour organiser Cesar Chavez – it has to be said that Clinton strikes one as the more assertive, the more commanding, the less tentative of the two leaders. I can’t help but feel that Obama wouldn’t be able to stand up to the entrenched interests as well as Clinton. The only caveat with Clinton is the terrible fear that she may be Tony-Blair- in-skirts (she can’t be Bill in skirts: Bill is Bill-in-skirts), and that whatever gains she makes in domestic politics will be offset by bombing Iran, invading Sudan etc. I don’t think that’s the case – in fact I think the election of a Democrat in November will put the cap on the whole neocon adventure that began in the Anglosphere with the ’96 election of the Rodent – but I am haunted by it nonetheless.
That’s not a visible concern at Cal State where the passion is ramped up to a height more characteristic of a Miley Cyrus concert (ask your kids); but god I get sick of being lectured by filmstars and singers about structural social reform. But then there are United Farm Workers organisers, and veteran black congressman Ron Dellums “My mother told me – you are black but you are also a mutlidimensional total person … and I have brought that total person to this moment to endorse Senator Clinton’ – and Tom Petty’s “American Girl”, and the same thing but more going on at the Obama gig across town. It would be impossible not to conclude that something, something, is happening.