By groping her way toward a message that put the blue-collar concerns at the center of the Democratic race, and by fashioning herself into what Rendell describes as an “intelligent, sophisticated populist,” Clinton achieved something both substantial and almost entirely unexpected. Who would have thought a year ago that we would talking today (with a straight face) about the possibility that the term Reagan Democrats would be supplanted by the moniker Hillary Democrats?
This achievement would have been impossible had Clinton left the race as early as many Democrats wished. Though the outlines of hers and Obama’s coalitions began to come clear on Super-Duper Tuesday, it was only after Ohio and Texas that the depth and severity of the fault lines running through the party became so glaringly apparent. For Obama and his people, Clinton’s bloody-minded persistence was unwelcome, yet another sign that she cared more about herself than the fate of the party this fall. But it also served, or should have served, as a blaring alarm about the scale of the challenge the presumptive nominee will confront in the general election.
“I certainly hope so,” Clinton replies when I suggest this to her. “Because we have been unsuccessful when we’ve failed to bring these two coalitions together. They are largely but not completely demographic coalitions, but there are certain themes in common that have to be sounded in order to bridge that divide. John Kerry basically lost because he didn’t do well enough with women and Hispanics. And Bill Clinton won because he cobbled the coalition together. And it is always a challenge for Democrats: You could go back and look at the arc from the New Deal coalition to its slow but steady erosion in the sixties to the mantle that Reagan grabbed that my husband began to try to wrest back and which neither Al Gore nor John Kerry could figure out how to bridge. So it’s perhaps more apparent in this race because it was such a long one and more people had a chance to vote. The pattern has become abundantly clear, but it’s always been there for the past 70-plus years.”
Clinton’s history lesson will no doubt strike many Obamans as self-serving. They will point out that she did more than lay bare the schism in the Democrat ranks; she at times seemed intent on exacerbating, rather than healing, it. Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But it’s equally true, and certainly more important, that if Democrats want not only to win this November but also to build a lasting and stable majority for the future, grappling with the divisions that cleave the party will be essential. And before that can happen, they must first admit those divisions exist—a process that Clinton, though it wasn’t her intention, has made unavoidable.
It would be hard to overstate the private pessimism that Hillary and Bill Clinton feel about Obama’s general-election prospects. Or the irritation they feel about the dismissive attitudes of some of his advisers toward her coalition, as evinced by the words of Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, after the Pennsylvania primary: “The white working class has gone to the Republican nominee for many elections … This is not new that Democratic candidates don’t rely solely on those votes.”
But the Clintons’ frustration with Obama’s people pales beside the simmering anger they harbor toward the media. And in this they are not alone. For months now, my e-mail box has been full of messages from women across the country, explaining what Hillary’s run meant to them, why it was so important. The reasons vary depending on age and race and region, but the one element almost all my correspondents express in common is a furious resentment at the press for what they see as blatant misogyny in the coverage of Clinton.
When I mention this to Hillary, she laughs and exclaims, “I’d love to get a look at your e-mail!” And then, more soberly, she goes on, “There’s a reason for the resentment. The level of dismissive and condescending comments, not just about me—what do I care?—but about the people who support me and in particular the women who support me, has been shocking. Shocking to women and to fair-minded men. But what has really been more disappointing to me is how few voices that have a platform have spoken out against it. And that’s really why you seen this enormous grassroots outrage. There is no outlet. It is rare that you have anybody on these shows or in a position of responsibility at major publications who really says, ‘Wait a minute! What are we talking about here? I have a wife! I have a daughter! I want the best for them.’ ”