Ignore Bill Clinton’s snide comments about fairy tales and improper comparisons of Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson. Barack Obama’s resounding victory in South Carolina virtually guaranteed that the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination will continue beyond Super Tuesday. It virtually guaranteed that the fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton — truces and promises notwithstanding — will be long, costly and probably dirty. And, thanks to Democratic Party rules, Obama’s greatest electoral success of the young primary season will force his campaign to make a decision about the very nature of his candidacy.
David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, was quoted in Monday’s New York Times as saying, “At the end of the day, this is a delegate contest.” He couldn’t be more right. In the past, candidates have approached Super Tuesday with the goal of achieving the national momentum that has propelled previous candidates to the nomination. This year, however, Super Tuesday will likely be a district-by-district fight for individual delegates with the possibility of an undecided nomination entering this year’s Democratic National Convention. Instead of the typical coronation of an already-decided nominee, this year’s DNC could easily be the scene of back door deals, complex wrangling and rhetorical jousting — with the Democratic presidential nomination at stake. Ultimately the decision could be swung by nearly 800 unelected “superdelegates,” party insiders who can cast a convention vote for whomever they want, regardless of the primary or caucus result in their state.
Back door deals? Rhetorical jousting? Party insiders? Do we have to wonder why Bill Clinton is throwing himself into this campaign? This is classic Bill Clinton politics: one-on-one charm, vote-counting, calling in favors based on his long experience. In short, insider politics. This sort of campaigning pits Obama and his compelling messages of “hope” and “change” against the Democratic Party’s foremost inside-the-Beltway machine. The last thing Obama wants is a “delegate contest.” The last thing his visionary campaign wants to do is count votes district-by-district and construct an argument for why Florida and Michigan voters (both of whom supported Hillary) shouldn’t count in the national nominating convention. Obama, the astoundingly successful outsider, is about to be thrown into a dirty political game by the arbitrary rules of the Democratic Party. He might as well bring an olive branch to a knife fight.
Obama’s candidacy, unlike any in recent memory, rests on the notion that he has the power to “change the game,” a phrase he used a year ago in a Washington Post op/ed. More than anyone else, Obama convinces us that politics can supersede petty wrangling and vote-trading. As an endless stream of commentators has pointed out, Obama’s appeal to young voters and independents and change-minded Republicans comes from the fact that his candidacy is more than a set of policies and a personality to implement them; Obama’s candidacy presents an alternative vision of America. We forgive his shortcomings on policy and his lack of experience because of this vision.
Obama’s campaign faces the challenge of maintaining a high-minded perspective while simultaneously engaging in political chicanery of an undemocratic and occasionally dishonest sort. Obama will have to find a way to count his votes at the convention while somehow staying above the fray. He’ll have to ask favors of party insiders while promising to be a candidate for all Americans. To win, he’ll have to pander locally while maintaining a strong national vision. He may even have to find a way to go negative while keeping intact his image as the positive candidate for change.
On the campaign trail, Obama projects an idealistic vision of politics as more than a game. The Clintons, on the other hand, seem to revel in the strategy and tactics of American politics. Bill Clinton’s ever-increasing involvement with his wife’s campaign and his recent comments suggest that he loves nothing more than the thought of getting back in the trenches. In any other year, a visionary candidate might avoid being hamstrung by party rules. But this year, the visionary’s idealism will be challenged by a concrete, rule-enforced realism. Obama must confront the stark fact that in order to win the nomination, he may have to engage in strategies that run counter to his message of hope.
Xan White is a junior in Pierson College. His column usually runs on alternate Thursdays.