One last 100-days thought

Watching Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton honor Sojourner Truth, you could see the real strength of the Democratic Party -- with or without Arlen Specter.

Published April 29, 2009 8:02PM (EDT)

I was going to write about a moment that really moved me on Tuesday, before Arlen Spectermania, that political wall of sound, overcame me. Belatedly, here it is.

One of my favorite moments of President Obama's whole first 100 days came Tuesday, when First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with an assist from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, unveiled a statue of anti-slavery hero Sojourner Truth. With Clinton beaming behind her, Michelle Obama told the crowd: "I hope Sojourner Truth would be proud to see me, the descendant of slaves, standing here as First Lady." It was tough to watch and not get a little teary.

I couldn't help but think about the drama of last year's Democratic primary, especially the narrative that said the Clintons and Obamas, and particularly Hillary and Michelle, hated one another. Remember how Michelle was alleged to oppose the choice of Clinton as vice president? It was even suggested she might not support Clinton if she were the Democratic nominee?

It wasn't true, but it was ugly for a while: Clinton partisans claiming Barack Obama was unready to be president; minimizing, even mocking his opposition to the Iraq war; some vicious Clintonistas joining the Fox News crusade to label Michelle Obama an angry black supremacist. Meanwhile divisive Obama zealots insisted that Clinton was hinting to Democratic superdelegates that Obama might be assassinated, when she referred to Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s doomed presidential candidacy last May, and tried to paint former President Bill Clinton as a stone-cold racist.

I rehash all that to remind people that a year ago, pundits on both sides of the aisle were suggesting the Democrats might be too divided to win the presidency. I never thought that, in fact, I denied it over and over -- and yet, even I thought the party could be hurt by the bitterness of the fighting. Certainly I didn't anticipate Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, or the warmth between the Obamas and the Clintons -- or the way, within 100 days, their alliance would turn out to be one of many assets that could assure the dominance of the Democratic Party this year, and perhaps for many years to come.

In fact, the party's resilience after that tough primary could become the stuff of political legend and envy – and lasting realignment. It's a stark contrast with the circular firing squad within the self-destructing GOP: Arlen Specter v. his old colleagues; John McCain v. Sarah Palin; Rush Limbaugh vs. McCain and Specter. It feels like the Democratic Party's decades of wrangling, about Iraq and Israel and torture and health care and abortion and more, has created an institution that stands for core issues, but flexibly tolerates those who dissent on one or two of them. Or in other words: a majority party.

Sadly, the only people who are reliably missing how marginal the Republican party has become are the leading lights of the mainstream media. They report on John Boehner and McCain, Newt Gingrich and Palin, Grover Norquist and Michele Bachmann, as if they matter and make sense to most Americans. When will media elites turn to the real story: A modern American party is committing slow suicide, because it consciously chose a path of elitism and exclusivity, while the Democrats fought a brutal battle, but came back together around the values of inclusion and equity that the political success of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – and Michelle Obama – represent. No doubt Sojourner Truth is smiling.


By Joan Walsh

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