A split Democratic decision

Obama won Oregon. Clinton won Kentucky. In Iowa, Obama skipped a victory lap and had gracious words for Clinton. So what's next for Democrats?

By Joan Walsh
May 21, 2008 5:36PM (UTC)
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Barack Obama did the right thing Tuesday night, celebrating his win among pledged delegates in Des Moines, but stopping short of claiming victory in his drive for the Democratic nomination. I'm not sure who in his campaign thought a big Iowa victory rally was a good idea, but as I've always said, Obama is better than many of the people behind him, and they didn't go through with it. I thought his praising Hillary Clinton was exactly what he needs to do: He gave her credit for the "35 years of public service" that he'd raised (fair) questions about earlier in the campaign, and I particularly liked the way he hailed "her courage and her commitment and perseverance" as examples for his two young daughters.

Hillary Clinton's been doing the right thing lately, too, continuing to press her issues without divisive rhetoric or attacks on the likely nominee, Obama, while winning big victories in West Virginia and Kentucky and reassuring her loyal supporters that she won't quit on them.


So now what?

I have always thought, and I continue to think, that if she wants to, Clinton should campaign through the end of the primaries -- why deprive South Dakota, Montana and Puerto Rico of their chance to participate in this thrilling, historic election? And like her or not, Hillary Clinton is making history. I understand that some staunch Obama supporters worry that continued Obama losses aren't good for the Democratic nomination. But I think he'd have lost West Virginia, Kentucky and (next week) Puerto Rico even with Clinton off the ballot.

And do these losses even matter? With a campaign as impressive as Obama's, it might seem misguided to focus on the things it has done wrong. And yet, when a candidate who's all but wrapped up the nomination loses two primaries by more than 35 percent, there might be a few things he could do better. I don't pretend to have an answer for Obama's troubles in Appalachia. No doubt some of it is racism -- exit polls reported a quarter of Clinton's Kentucky supporters said race was an issue in their vote -- but I don't believe racism alone accounts for such mind-blowing Clinton wins (and Obama supporters who indulge in despicable Appalachian stereotypes to explain his losses aren't doing their alleged candidate any favors). Take away a quarter of Clinton's voters: She'd still have beaten Obama roughly 340,000 to 210,000, or about 60-40. Personally, I wish Obama had staged his John Edwards announcement in Kentucky rather than Michigan; did he even ask Edwards to go to Kentucky for him? There's no evidence of that. At any rate, there was clearly no Edwards effect in Kentucky.


All that may ultimately be just a quibble as Obama moves ever closer to the nomination. His numbers in Oregon, along with his win in Iowa, show he can persuade plenty of white voters -- he benefited from Oregon's high levels of education as well as a stunning 38 percent of Oregon voters who said they're not religious, according to CNN's polls. And it's possible Appalachia won't matter in November. Certainly it's easy to imagine that if Obama patches things up with the Clintons, Democrats will have Bill and Hillary and Chelsea campaigning for him in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky and other places he hasn't done well, making these big blowouts just a bad memory. But we're not there yet.

On CNN, it was clear Donna Brazile and Paul Begala got a make-nice memo. Brazile was praising Clinton, Begala was praising Obama. Brazile refused to blame race for Obama's troubles in Kentucky, noting that "Senator Obama isn't well known" to Democratic voters, and they need to get to know him. But a dyspeptic Carl Bernstein was railing divisively against Clinton and her supporters, warning that she's started a movement that will demand Democrats "change the rules" to give her the nomination. Bernstein issued a gloomy prognosis because of the high numbers of Clinton and Obama supporters (mostly Clinton) who say they won't vote for the other candidate if they're the nominee. "I've never seen anything like that," Bernstein warned darkly. (He got nuttier later, warning about an "angry army" of Clinton supporters, mostly women, and I found myself wishing Nora Ephron would reply to him.)

But in fact, we've never seen anything like this exciting, historic primary, and it's true we don't know how it will end. But I can promise people like Bernstein, who think the answer is rushing Hillary Clinton off stage, that they're the ones who are condemning Democrats to the division and bitterness they pretend to want to avoid. Let everyone vote, and count all their votes. That's what Democrats stand for.


Update: Oh Lord, did I really miss CNN's Alex Castellanos, a GOP consultant, defending calling Hillary Clinton "a white bitch"?

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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2008 Elections