The Test

Photographs by Shiho Fukada

The tableau on Odell Clark Place in Harlem two Sunday afternoons ago looked like a scene lifted straight from a Spike Lee movie—assuming the movie was an updated, uptown hybrid of All the King’s Men and The Bonfire of the Vanities. On the south side of the street, in front of the fabled Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, in a dapper gray homburg and two-tone topcoat, posed before a swarm of cameramen and beside Hillary Clinton, whose presidential bid he was endeavoring to endorse. What made this an act of some difficulty was the lusty chanting of the sign-toting crowd that had gathered across the road, undeterred by the subfreezing temperature, to offer an endorsement of its own: “O-Bam-A! O-Bam-A! O-BAM-A!”

As Butts gamely struggled to make his finely honed phrases heard above the din, Clinton stood by, grinning from ear to ear. When he finished, she offered some words of her own and even (as is her wont these days) took a few questions from the press; the frigid air made them, for once, unaggrieved at the brevity of the “avail.” Through it all, the chanters kept on chanting, but Clinton was unfazed. In fact, she ambled across the street and delivered hot coffee to the protesters, rendering them, finally, mute.

A few minutes later, I met Clinton back inside the church. Although she’d arrived in New York from Las Vegas that morning at around 3 a.m., the senator was chipper—and no wonder. The day before, she had won the Nevada caucuses, giving her a second consecutive victory over Barack Obama in a state where a loss seemed imminent. But the Nevada campaign had been a surpassingly ugly affair, one that commenced with yet another Clinton backer, BET founder Robert Johnson, obliquely raising Obama’s teenage drug use, continued with a Spanish-language radio ad by a pro-Obama group asserting that Clinton “does not respect our people,” and ended with accusations from both sides of voter intimidation and vote suppression. Suddenly, the specter of a Democratic nominating contest riven by identity politics hung heavy in the air.

Clinton insisted that she did not want the campaign “to be about race or gender.” But in the next breath, she assailed her rival’s operation for indulging in scurrilous racial politics repeatedly—citing the memo it sent out last year that labeled her as “Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)”—and with impunity. When I asked Clinton if she was worried that the conduct of her own campaign might alienate black voters, she replied, “This is such a difficult election across the country, and I think we do have an obligation to try and stay above it, to try to contain the feelings. But it’s not inappropriate to say, ‘Look, there’s a lot at stake here.’ If you believe you would be the best president, that you would be the best candidate to win in November, you’re going to get out there and make your case, and you’re going to make it vigorously.”

Vigorous would be one adjective to describe the tenor of the back-and-forth between Clinton and Obama the following night at the Democratic debate in South Carolina. Another would be vicious. The debate made evident what anyone who has spent time in close quarters with these two cats already understood: They have come to regard each other bitterly, scornfully, as unfit to lead their party against the Republicans in the fall.

Maybe it was inevitable that the campaign—this historic rumble between the first credible female and African-American aspirants to the highest office in the land—would end up here, but until quite recently, it didn’t seem that way. For one full year, we were treated instead to a mutually self-serving (or self-defeating) narrative, dominated by prettied-up personas and tissue-thin false dichotomies: change versus experience, novelty versus familiarity, idealism versus pragmatism. Presidential campaigns are always highly scripted affairs, of course. But the endless wonder of them is that eventually, invariably, the story line goes careering off the rails, veering into more visceral and personal territory—in the process revealing much about the candidates, the country, and even ourselves.

What’s been revealed by the battles that have raged over this past month is that Clinton and Obama, for all their similarities in terms of policy, have distinctly different notions, both plausible, about politics and its possibilities; about partisanship and the chances and desirability of surmounting it; about how a president goes about achieving progress. That their personalities, temperaments, and leadership qualities could hardly be more divergent. That the Democratic Party still harbors powder-keg racial tensions just waiting to be detonated. And that America remains deeply ambivalent about the prospect of a Clinton restoration—although, in truth, this last was probably more of a reminder than a revelation.

Almost a year ago, the top strategists of the big-three Democratic candidates appeared at an event at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In response to a question from a student about how the Democrats could avoid being Swift-Boated in 2008, Clinton’s chief savant, Mark Penn, argued that his boss had a proven adeptness at hand-to-hand combat against “the Republican machine.” “She knows how they think, she knows how they act, she knows how to defeat them,” Penn maintained. “And I think that experience is absolutely critical to actually winning this White House.”

Seated across from Penn, Obama’s guru, David Axelrod, mournfully shook his head. “Let me just say that I think our aspirations should be, at the end of the day, not to defeat the Republican machine but to rebuild the American community.” Soon enough, Penn, clearly annoyed by Axelrod’s piety, was contending that the records of Obama and Clinton on Iraq were essentially indistinguishable—which, in turn, brought forth a stern rebuke from Axelrod. “I really think it’s important,” he said, “if we are going to run the kind of campaign that will unify our party and move this country forward, that we do it in an honest way, and that was not an honest tactic.”

At the time, it was impossible to know that you were witnessing a crystalline preview of the campaign ahead, illuminating the thematic and substantive contrasts the candidates would draw. It also hinted unmistakably at the potential that the race could turn radioactive at the drop of a hat.

A pollster by trade, the CEO of PR giant Burson-Marsteller by position, Penn is obsessed with carving up the electorate into itty-bitty slices and famous for propounding micro-policies to satisfy their cravings and allay their anxieties. Among many in the Clinton circle, he is regarded with intense suspicion; his feuding with her communications director, Howard Wolfson, and longtime ally Harold Ickes is legendary. “A lot of Clinton people aren’t sure that Penn is really a Democrat—you know, he’s kind of a New York Sun guy,” says one of his clients. “Some of them wouldn’t piss on his head if his hair were on fire.”

Penn defends himself as a champion of the middle class and argues that, as he put it to me, “small policies can sometimes lead to big changes and promote big ideas.” Having helped engineer Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996 and both of Hillary’s Senate conquests, he enjoys the abiding trust of both Clintons—an unusual position. And for much of 2007, the campaign that he devised for HRC appeared to be working like a charm. Its fundamental premise was her inevitability. Its tactical aims were focused on presenting Clinton as the Democrat readiest to be president “on day one.” Its strategic goal was to neutralize the question that the campaign regarded as her Achilles’ heel: her gender. As Clinton admitted to me, “I really believed I had to prove in this race from the very beginning that a woman could be president and a woman could be commander-in-chief. I thought that was my primary mission.”

But in the weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Clinton began to realize she’d made “a fundamental miscalculation,” she said. “I frankly made a wrong assumption about how to present myself to the country.” Thus her late-stage bid to convince the voters of Iowa that she was human after all, an effort embodied in all its absurdity and desperation by her now-infamous “likability tour”—a tour that kicked off just a matter of days after she’d first gone negative on Obama, announcing, “Now the fun part starts.”

As Clinton was stumbling in Iowa, Obama was on the rise. Far more than Penn, Axelrod, a former Chicago Tribune reporter with thinning hair and a mingy mustache, grasped that the yearning to turn the page would be the central dynamic in 2008—and that this presented an opening for as unconventional a candidate as Obama. Sure, Axelrod allowed, Obama’s CV was meager by traditional standards compared with Clinton’s. But as he explained to me last summer, “The real question is, do we accept this broken paradigm of Democrats and Republicans at each other’s throats? That’s why people are so disillusioned with our politics.”

Axelrod, who once worked not only for Hillary but for Bill Clinton (the phrase “bridge to the 21st century” from WJC’s 1996 campaign was his confection), first met Obama more than fifteen years ago and has been by his side all throughout his meteoric ascent. Axelrod believed that Obama could be the sort of transformational candidate he described, for a number of reasons. Although many of Obama’s positions were conventionally liberal, his pragmatism and incrementalism placed him outside any old-school ideological box. His signature accomplishments—death-penalty reform in Illinois, ethics reform in Washington—reflected a yen for cross-party cooperation. And in Obama’s post-racialism, the whole Kenyan-Kansan thing, Axelrod discerned the makings of a brand with enormous selling power. “Barack is the personification of his own message for this country,” he told the Times. “That we get past the things that divide us and focus on the things that unite us. He is his own vision.”

Compelling as that vision was, Axelrod erred in underestimating the degree to which Obama’s lack of experience would prey on the minds of voters. For months, various high-level supporters beseeched the campaign to come up with a better answer to the charge that he was unprepared for the presidency. “What Barack said for months is, basically, ‘It’s not experience that matters, it’s judgment,’ ” one close friend of his tells me. “But that was a terrible answer: Voters have a right to expect both experience and judgment.”

In late November, the campaign finally got the message—and was blessed by the discovery of a quote that would aid it immeasurably. Now, all over Iowa, Obama told audiences that “experience is important, but there is the wrong kind of experience and the right kind of experience. My experience is working in the real lives of real people, and I will bring real results if we have the courage to bring about change. I’ll have to admit that these are not my words, but Bill Clinton’s words when he was running for president in 1992. Bill Clinton was right then, and Barack Obama is right now.”

After winning his stunning victory in Iowa, Obama sailed into New Hampshire with the winds of history and destiny apparently gusting at his back. For the next few days, he looked like more than a mere candidate. He looked like the leader of a movement. The soaring oratory. The thousands-strong crowds. Even the most hard-bitten reporters were agog at what was unfolding before their eyes.

Much has been made of how the press and pollsters missed the signs of Clinton’s rebound in New Hampshire. We misread the impact of her brimming tear ducts, of her debate performance, of all those questions that she took. And, no doubt, Clinton dug deep in the Granite State, calling up reserves of humanity and resilience that we (and perhaps she) had forgotten that she had in her. But equally influential on the outcome of the primary were the god-awful mistakes committed by Obama and his team.

Back in Iowa, Obama’s speeches, though always long on inspiration, had also eviscerated Clinton: the riffs on how “the same old Washington textbook campaigns [and] triangulating and poll-driven positions … just won’t do.” But in New Hampshire, Obama dropped the contrasts. He added not a jot of substance, not a shred of an economic message in a state where that issue is always paramount. He refrained from engaging in back-and-forth with either voters or the press. His permafrosty condescension toward his rival—“You’re likable enough, Hillary”—suggested at once cocksureness and complacency. And Axelrod’s postdebate spin that “you do better playing to people’s hopes than preying on their fears” captured the true-believerism that gripped the campaign’s upper echelon. The Obama movement was now unstoppable; all they had to do was stall out the clock and watch as Hillary melted down.

If Obama fails to win the nomination, history will look back on this as the moment when he let it slip away, missing his best (and maybe last) opportunity to behead the queen. As Axelrod’s team headed west, they were dazed but determined to adapt to the new reality. With Hillary having trounced Obama among economy-minded voters in New Hampshire, their plan was to home in laserlike on kitchen-table issues in Nevada. But then a race-bomb was lobbed into their laps—and blew that plan to pieces.

The Carson City Community Center was bulging at the seams when Obama showed up for a town-hall meeting the Monday night before the Nevada caucuses. During the Q&A afterward, a grandmother took the mike and coughed up a query that was unusually blunt. “Let’s get down to brass tacks here,” the lady said. “We’ve never elected a black man in this country before.”

“That’s a good point!” Obama cracked. “I’ve noticed that!”

“I have, too. How can you address that issue?”

Obama’s answer was pitch-perfect. “I don’t want to sound naïve. Will there be some folks who probably don’t vote for me because I’m black? Of course. Just like there would be some of you who wouldn’t vote for Hillary because she’s a woman and some who wouldn’t vote for John Edwards because they don’t like his accent.”

As a matter of strategy as well as principle, Obama had been at pains to downplay race as a factor in his candidacy. But with his loss in New Hampshire, issues of black and white inserted themselves at the center of the fray. First came the question of whether the variance between the preprimary polls and the outcome meant some white voters had lied to pollsters, though scant evidence exists to buttress that theory. Then there were Clinton’s comments that seemed to privilege LBJ over Martin Luther King Jr. in the advancement of civil rights—comments that, however innocently intended, were taken as blasphemy by many blacks. Most incendiary, though, were the remarks by BET’s Johnson, who not only hinted elliptically at Obama’s dabblings with cocaine as a kid but also likened him to Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

I asked Clinton about the troubling pattern of her supporters—in addition to Johnson, there was Billy Shaheen, her erstwhile New Hampshire co-chairman, who suggested that Obama would have to answer whether he’d ever sold drugs, and also Bob Kerrey, who said Obama had attended a “secular madrassa”—launching racially freighted interjections. “Well, it’s been a relatively few instances that I’m aware of,” Clinton responded. “With respect to people we have any control over, we took immediate action. With respect to people we don’t have control over, they both apologized and did so in a timely manner.” I noted that in Michigan, with only Clinton’s name on the ballot, 70 percent of black voters had pulled the lever for “uncommitted” instead of her. Given her and her husband’s storied bond with African-Americans, I wondered if that stung.

“No, it doesn’t, it doesn’t at all,” she said. Clinton added that she understood why many blacks would choose Obama, given the historic nature of his candidacy. “A lot of people who might not vote for me in a primary will not have the conflict going forward in the general election that they have today. And I guess my strong message to African-American voters is one I think they know and they know I know, which is that it’s okay.”

“I really believed I had to prove in this race… that a woman could be commander-in-chief,” says Clinton, who calls this “a fundamental miscalculation.”

Clinton’s supine posture when it comes to the black vote is a curious thing—a sign of either enormous grace or devious calculation. Dick Morris has suggested that the Clintons have sought to hang Obama’s blackness around his neck in order to “trigger the white backlash Senator Clinton needs to win.” Other operatives agree. “There’s no question the Clinton people are playing on race intentionally,” says a Democratic consultant, unaffiliated with Clinton or Obama, who has run more than one presidential campaign. “They know exactly what they’re doing. They’ll do anything to win. It’s hurting both campaigns, but it hurts Obama more. Is America ready for a black president? Some voters are, some voters aren’t. But even the ones who are look at this thing and think, ‘Jesus, I don’t want to see a general election conducted on these terms. I don’t wanna see our nominee get beat up like this. If this is what it’s like when it’s just Democrats, imagine what will happen when Republicans go to work on him. Why do we want to go through that? I’ll just stick with the safe choice.’ ”

On the flight out to Las Vegas, I happened to catch, on my seat-back TV, an interview Clinton had given to Access Hollywood in which she remarked, “They say Ginger Rogers had to do all the same moves as Fred Astaire, except that she had to do them backwards and in heels. Well, that’s kind of how I feel sometimes, too.” Later, I asked Clinton how this squared with her assertion that she didn’t want gender to be injected into the campaign. “It’s part of the background music everywhere,” she answered. “People are going to ask you about it, and it would be foolish to say, well, it’s not worth talking about.” Clinton went on, “I don’t have a claim on anybody’s vote. I’m not even entitled to my mother’s vote.”

Actually, I said, I think you are entitled to that.

“Not according to my mother! She was one of the ones I had to get over the commander-in-chief hurdle for!”

It’s often said that Clinton is much warmer and more spontaneous in private than in public, which is true. Also that she has improved greatly as a campaigner—though even now, her performances from stop to stop on the campaign trail are markedly uneven. But the one consistent element of Clinton on the stump is an unrepentant wonkiness. At a church event in Compton, California, for instance, she discoursed with great fervor on how “green-collar jobs” installing solar panels could be a boon to the inner city. As we sat together at Abyssinian, Clinton still bundled up in the black down coat she’d been wearing outside with Butts, I reminded her of her invocation of Mario Cuomo’s dictum that “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.” For Hillary, however, the distinction seemed not to apply: In both campaigning and governing, prose is all she knows.

“I think that’s a fair observation,” Clinton said. “Part of it is just who I am, what I’m comfortable with, how I think I best communicate with people … Benjamin Franklin once said, ‘Well-done is better than well-said.’ I’m kind of a well-done person.”

Does she envy Obama his capacity for soaring rhetoric?

“No, I don’t, I don’t envy,” she said sharply. “Maybe it’s because of the family I grew up in, maybe it’s because of my faith tradition. Methodists are very, uh, methodical people”—she laughed—“but I judge on what people do. I can get moved and carried away by a great speech like anybody else, and I often have … Words can move us, words can motivate us, words can create movements, all that. But people’s lives don’t change just with words.”

Hillary believes, to the core of her political being, that what changes people’s lives are government programs. Her command of detail about these is prodigious, at times jaw-slackeningly so. And this often leads journalists to underestimate the effectiveness of her laundry-listy rhetorical métier. At her final speech in New Hampshire, I watched a well-known national columnist walk up to Doug Hattaway, one of her strategists, and mock a portion of her speech in which she promised that she’d do away with the horrendous paperwork involved in applying for college student aid. Hattaway simply shrugged and said, “She probably wouldn’t keep saying it if it didn’t get huge applause everywhere she goes.”

Clinton’s focus on the quotidian telegraphs to voters her seriousness about issues and tangible deliverables. And this, in turn, may help explain why she is doing so much better among downscale voters than Obama is—along with highlighting one of the core strengths of her candidacy in an ever-worsening economy. According to copious research conducted by Penn, upscale voters tend to focus more on personality and character, while working stiffs focus more on substance and on who will effectively defend their interests. “The eggheads have become the jug-heads,” Penn says, “and the jug-heads have become the eggheads.”

Clinton put it somewhat differently, but the point was the same. “Most Americans need a president—not everybody, probably not the two of you,” she said with a smile, gesturing to me and her press secretary, Jay Carson. “So you are free to vote however you choose. You can vote on a feeling, you can vote on a speech, you can vote on a debate, you can vote any way you want. But if you’re on the brink of falling out of the middle class, if you’re worried about health care, home foreclosures, and all these other problems, you need a president that you really can believe in and count on to deliver.”

Clinton didn’t contrast herself with Obama here, but she didn’t need to. The irony is that the rhetoric-versus-reality motif that she is pressing against Obama is nearly identical to the one that Bob Dole employed against Bill Clinton back in 1996: that Clinton was “the talker” and Dole “the doer.” The message didn’t work then, but it appears to be working now—in no small part because this time it’s Clinton, and I don’t mean Hillary, who is making the argument.

The afternoon before the Nevada caucuses, I drove up from the Strip to North Las Vegas to catch Bill Clinton at a community-center YMCA. Before a tiny crowd but a bank of cameras, Clinton wore an electric-orange tie, and spoke for 30 minutes, then took Q&A, during which he contended that the Culinary Workers Union, which had endorsed Obama, was trying to prevent its members from voting for his wife. “Today, when my daughter and I were wandering through the [Bellagio],” he said, “and all these culinary workers were mobbing us telling us they didn’t care what the union told them to do, they were gonna caucus for Hillary, there was a representative of the organization following along behind us going up to everybody who said that, saying, ‘If you’re not gonna vote for our guy, we’re gonna give you a schedule tomorrow so you can’t be there.’”

The chances that a union representative intent on engaging in such strong-arming would do it within earshot of Bill Clinton (or Chelsea, as he later claimed) is close to nil. But no matter. A few hours before the caucuses, Clinton had done his job: muddying the waters with an utterly unverifiable story, suggesting that Obama’s supporters had dirty hands when, in fact, it was Hillary’s allies in the local teachers union that had launched a lawsuit to shut down the caucus sites on the Strip within two days after the culinary union announced its endorsement of Obama.

For much of last year, Clinton’s role in his wife’s campaign was anodyne, limited to putting a fine gloss on her proposals and “35 years of experience” (ahem). But in the past month the former president has taken on the role normally associated with a vice-presidential candidate: pit-bull-in-chief. People often forget what a skilled practitioner of the politics of fear Clinton always has been. His entire 1996 campaign revolved around scaring the elderly senseless with the prospect that the GOP would abolish Medicare. But Clinton’s recent wave of fearmongering and distortions concerning Obama—that to vote for him would be to “roll the dice,” that his antiwar record is a “fairy tale,” that he claimed “Republicans had better ideas than the Democrats the last ten to fifteen years”—has been a vivid reminder of his propensities in this regard, and of their dangers. In recent days, both Ted Kennedy and Rahm Emanuel have pleaded with him privately to tone it down. Many Democrats fret that Clinton’s conduct threatens to divide the party, depressing turnout in the fall, especially among black voters, if Hillary is the nominee. And also to remind the country of an aspect of Clintonism that few wish to see revived.

But asking the Big Dog to muzzle himself is futility itself—particularly when his outbursts appear to be having the desired effect. On Hillary’s team, WJC unplugged once inspired queasiness bordering on panic. Its attitude now? You go, girl.

For Obama, the question of how to respond to Clinton has been vexed. To hit back would be to take on a figure much beloved by rank-and-file Democratic voters; it would risk making him look rattled and defensive. And although last week the campaign decided it had no choice but to take the gloves off, it has refused to pummel the Clintons in their collective solar plexus. There has been no mention of impeachment or Monica. No mention of the way the Clintons’ blunders cost their party control of Congress in 1994. These sorts of broadsides would be risky, to be sure, not least to Obama’s brand. As one of his close friends puts it, “It’s hard for Barack to be both down in the mud with the Clintons and be, you know, Barack.”

From the start, Obama and Axelrod agreed on one thing: that Obama could not, would not, should not run as a conventional politician. This agreement was born, in part, of the truth that Clinton had so many inbuilt advantages in waging such a campaign that meeting her on that well-trod turf would be a suicide mission. But it was also rooted in the reality of the person Obama is. “I remember telling him that he was too normal to run for president,” Axelrod recalled one night in the bar at a Holiday Inn in Iowa. “I’ve worked for a lot of these guys, and I can tell you, he’s just different. He really wants to be president, but he doesn’t need to be president.”

The unconventionality of Obama’s campaign is the source of its power—and of many of the frustrations and worries it incites. Like any presidential candidate, he has position papers up the wazoo, but his rhetoric is almost entirely devoid of programmatic specificity. This gaping hole can make his bid seem narcissistic, even messianic: La campagne, c’est moi! But behind it lies a rigorous conception of the presidency and a diagnosis of what ails the political system. Obama believes that a fundamental change in how Washington works—an end to the intense partisanship that’s reigned for the past two decades, in particular—is a precondition for major policy advances. He believes that, as he often says, “we can disagree without being disagreeable.” He’s convinced that unity is attainable through the right kind of leadership: his.

Clinton doesn’t say so quite this bluntly, but she manifestly considers Obama’s outlook woefully naïve. Her view of the culture of Washington is darker, and of transforming it, more skeptical. And while she prefers to speak of achieving change through hard work—to paint herself as the candidate of perspiration as opposed to inspiration—at bottom she conceives of politics as an endless series of skirmishes. “I don’t take anything away from the vision-setting, the raising of hopes and aspirations,” she said. But “sometimes it takes pushing through the opposition, not converting them.”

For many Democrats, both these worldviews have something to commend them as well as obvious imperfections. And so they find themselves asking something more basic: Which candidate is more electable? And here Obama’s adherents have a strong case to make that their man has the edge. Obama has demonstrated amply a facility at drawing support from independents and Republicans, which will be essential to winning in the fall. A recent Gallup poll found that 59 percent of voters view him favorably and just 32 percent unfavorably; the split for Clinton is 50-46.

Obama’s electability case is further bolstered by the endorsements he’s received from a number of key Democrats from purple or red states: Governors Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Tim Kaine of Virginia; Senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Tim Johnson of South Dakota. “Absolutely, I believe that he can carry Missouri,” says McCaskill, who observes that Obama’s recent quasi-admiring words about Reagan, the subject of much consternation on the left, are a huge advantage in her state. “Ronald Reagan stole a lot of Democrats in Missouri, and we need to get them back—and Barack can.” As for Obama’s pigmentation, Nelson tells me that, even in Nebraska, it would not be a prohibitive issue. “I don’t think [his race] is a positive or negative factor here—it’s probably neutral.”

Obama’s swing-state endorsers are at pains not to criticize Clinton openly. But one of them confides, “It’s fairly obvious that the Republicans are having a hard time finding a candidate for conservatives to coalesce around. So November is gonna be all about turnout. And I do think Hillary Clinton would energize the Republican base, at least in my state, as no one else would.”

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.

John Heilemann on the South Carolina Primary

Additional reporting by Michelle Dubert.

The Test