“He’s never going to shake her off”, wrote Maureen Dowd in last Wednesday’s New York Times, “not all by himself…She’s been running ads about it, suggesting he doesn’t have ‘what it takes’ to run the country. Her message is unapologetically emasculating: If he does not have the gumption to put me in my place…how can he be trusted to totally obliterate Iran or stop Osama?”(1). Chris Matthews on his nightly “Hardball” program has likened this contest to a boxing match between two featherweights with neither contender possessing a knock-out punch. The implication, by extension, is that perhaps neither Democratic rival is truly presidential timber.
While Democrats “watch in horror as Hillary continues to scratch up the once silvery sheen on Obama” (1) and while John McCain consolidates his base it is perhaps too easy to dismiss this contest as one between political lightweights. What we may be witnessing instead is a struggle between two of the largest and most loyal constituent blocs within the Democratic coalition, each with clear and compelling claims to the party’s loyalty, and each strong enough to check-mate the other, in a titanic struggle to determine which social and political barrier will be broken first.
For some perverse reason, perhaps the simple caprice or the mendacity of mischievous deities, the Democratic Party has chosen this moment in history to square the circle of social injustice. In any case the traditional mold of the standard-bearer has been shattered opening the door to those who have loyally supported through thick and thin every Democratic nominee be he FDR or Walter Mondale. The party, and its faithful, cannot turn its back on the aspirations of such groups without appearing to be devouring its own—or, in Obama’s case, devouring its young. And so the party stands transfixed as this drama is played out on the national and international stage from one dreary primary to another, each contestant exhausted, each laying against the ropes, in the hope that the contest will play itself out and one or the other will win on points.
To win on points….that is the crux of the matter. The Matthew’s and the Dowd’s would love to see a knock-out. We have long been accustomed to such contests ending this way, but this year it was not to be.
In one corner is the heir to the champion; in many ways Hillary was Bill’s sparring partner, like Jimmy Ellis and Larry Holmes both sparring partners of Muhammad Ali and both later champions in their own right. In the other corner is the “Louisville Lip” himself reincarnated into the inscrutable Barack Obama, a political force capable of inspiring the crowd by transforming what is a very brutal “contact” sport into an act of poetic grace. Their fighting styles are markedly different, Hillary a tough scrappy fighter who needs to get in close and deliver body blows, Barach, like Ali, dances and moves, floating like a butterfly delivering his punches from long range. Each has demonstrated enormous strength in the primary campaign. Each has raised well over 150 million dollars and won over 15 million votes. Each representing major power blocs within the party is capable of knocking the other out. The question is why hasn’t it happened? As Ms. Dowd put it, “why can’t he close the deal?” (1).
Perhaps the first question is “why didn’t she close the deal?” It has become standard fodder on the talk circuit in recent weeks for the chattering class to ask rhetorically “he could have finished her in New Hampshire but couldn’t close the deal, he could have finished her on super Tuesday but couldn’t put her away, he could have finished her in Ohio but didn’t, and now Pennsylvania. Why can’t he seal the deal?” The problem with this critique is that it assumes that he has been the front-runner all this time. In fact he was not. She was still the odd-on-favorite through New Hampshire and everyone—including the Clinton camp—had assumed that Barack would meet his Waterloo on Super Tuesday. The more compelling question was—and still is—why didn’t she put him away? Why couldn’t Hillary seal the deal?
To answer that question one must go back once again to the Michigan results. Uncontested Hillary got only 55% of the vote. Obama, by becoming the voice of the other half of the party, quickly reached parity and so began a long struggle between two almost evenly matched forces within the party over who will be its champion.
Perhaps the best boxing metaphor is the Ali-Frazier trilogy. Here were two of the greatest heavyweight champions in the history of the sport, each possessing extraordinary power and boxing skill who were, nevertheless, locked in long and brutal contests to decide who would be champion. “The closest I’ve ever come to death”, said Ali after the “Thrilla in Manila”. So it was. Finally, at the end of this rubber-match to decide for all-time who was best, it came down to Joe Frazier finally not answering the bell and Ali collapsing on the ring floor. This is what we are witnessing, in my view, two very formidable political figures, each representing powerful constituencies, each equally matched and neither quite ready yet to throw in the towel. But the classic fight in Manila may be instructive in yet another way: both fighters left too much of themselves in the ring and were never thereafter the same. That is what worries the Democratic faithful at a time when neither the party nor the country can afford to lose.