The increasingly likely prospect that John McCain will be the GOP nominee seems to reinforce the case for Obama. “With McCain, you want to have a Democrat who can appeal to independents,” says one strategist. “And Obama does that, in addition to setting up a bunch of slam-dunk contrasts: It’s young versus old, the future versus the past, change versus more of the same.”
Clinton’s adherents hear such observations and dismiss them as jejune. Obama has “a glass jaw,” they say; the Republicans will carve him up like a piece of processed lunch meat. “Think about this,” one of her advisers pointed out to me. “In New Hampshire, he came within a few thousand votes of being our nominee—without ever once in his whole career having a negative ad run against him!”
Not surprisingly, Hillary believes that her battle-testedness confers on her a clear advantage. “The Republicans aren’t going to give up the White House without a fight,” she says. “And what has worked for them is going after whoever our nominee is—going after, in fact, where the nominee thinks he or she is strong, going after the nominee in a way that sort of turns that person into an alien to big parts of America, right? So is there any doubt in anybody’s mind that will happen to our nominee? And is there any doubt that I have been through this, and much of what they have thrown at me for fifteen, sixteen years has already been discredited?”
Clinton’s argument has real force. But if she’s correct that the brutally polarized partisan dynamics of Washington are ineradicable, isn’t the logical conclusion that a Clinton restoration would mean four (or eight) more years of the Clinton wars—a perpetual 1998? The thought of it produced a dull throbbing in my temples, and I told her so. “I can understand the feeling,” she said with a laugh. “But, in some ways, psychologically and emotionally, that might be less painful and more short-lived than it would be with someone who’s never been through it. Because it’ll happen. I don’t think I’m saying anything negative, I’m just stating a fact: It will happen.”
What, dear reader, is your reaction when you hear talk like that? Do you find yourself vigorously nodding your head—or cradling it in your hands? The enthralling campaign playing out now before us has Democrats all over the city and across the country asking such questions and others that they have never contemplated before. The battle between Hillary and Barack has produced plenty of heat, with more to come, no doubt. But it has also generated considerable light, clarifying for many of us that the choice we’ll be making on February 5 isn’t mainly between two sets of policies or even two individuals. It’s between two different ways of looking at the world.
If you find yourself drawn to the Clinton candidacy, you likely believe that politics is politics, that partisanship isn’t transmutable, that Republicans are for the most part irredeemable. You suspect that talk of transcendence amounts to humming “Kumbaya” past the graveyard. You believe that progress comes only with a fight, and that Clinton is better equipped than Obama (or maybe anyone) to succeed in the poisonous, fractious environment that Washington is now and ever shall be. You ponder the image of Bill as First Laddie and find yourself smiling, not sighing or shrieking.
If you find yourself swept up in Obamamania, on the other hand, you regard this assessment as sad, defeatist, as a kind of capitulation. You’re perfectly aware that politics is often a dirty business. But you believe it could be a bit cleaner, a bit nobler, a bit more sustaining. You think that paradigm shifts can happen, that the system can be rebooted. Most of all, an attraction to Obama indicates you are, on some level, a romantic. You never had your JFK, your MLK, and you desperately crave one: What you want is to fall in love.
A vote for Clinton, in other words, is a wager rooted in hard-eyed realism. Her upside may be limited, but so is her downside, because although the ceiling on her putative presidency might be low, the floor beneath it is fairly high. A vote for Obama, as the Big Dog said, is indeed a role of the dice. The risks of his hypothetical presidency are higher, but the potential payoff is greater: He could be the next Jack Kennedy—or the next Jimmy Carter. The gamble here entails both the thrill and the terror of letting yourself dream again.