So now we have a nominee of the Democratic Party and the main event can proceed. The most hotly contested primary in electoral memory, which was destined to produce at least one of two history-making results, produced the one that almost no one would have predicted as recently as six months ago, and the Clintons, despite their half-hearted attempts to put on a game face, will be in a state of shock, disbelief, and a fair amount of resentment for years to come. But make no mistake–she and Bill have a plan, and look for it to begin to unfold even before their party’s convention.
Meanwhile, what really happened here? The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger has the best summation–Obama’s “identity” beat Hillary’s “identity”–and he poses the critical question of the end game: Did the Clinton supporters and senior party officials ever believe that the 794 superdelegates would decide that of the two candidates’ constituencies–Hillary’s women and white working class voters and Barack’s black voters–they would stiff Sen. Obama’s 90% black base? Not a chance, even if he led by just one delegate vote. Obama’s identity politics trumped Clinton’s identity politics.
However badly the Obama people want to deny this or attempt to continue with his core message of “unity”, it won’t sell, because his constitution is of, by, and for group identity, and this fact is manifest in the identification of his key support base, his messages over the years, and his policy prescriptions on the campaign circuit–much of which is replete with identity politics and its handmaiden, the politics of grievance and victimization. If you doubt this, read and listen to the words.
On to the question to which we will return many times between now and November–can he win? Commentator Chris Matthews had a very interesting take on this as it pertains to whether or not Obama can capture the large majority of Hillary Clinton’s base of white working class Democrats. He said that this question boils down to the degree to which he can relate to the one thing that is embedded in the psyche of this voting bloc–Americanism. This he describes as a difficult to define innate cultural loyalty to this one thing that cannot be taken from people, however dispossessed they might feel or how alienated from “the system” they have become. And it’s not overtly racist, but rather an evaluation as to what degree he is “one of us”. Matthews believes that Truman, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 43 could all connect on this, and even Kennedy and Roosevelt could to a large extent. Can Obama do this?
Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia has a similar message, much deeper and better developed because he has written widely about it. In an interview in May, he reminded his audience of his essay, “Secret GOP Weapon”, writtten just weeks before the 2004 election, and issued a warning to Obama for 2008. What is the secret weapon? The Scots-Irish vote. Why was and is it threatening to the Democratic Party? Because, as Webb writes, “few key Democrats seem even to know that the Scots-Irish exist, as this culture is so individualistic that it will never overtly form into one of the many interest groups that dominate Democratic Party politics”. True American-style democracy had its origins in this culture and it is the dominant culture of the South and much of the Midwest. It is steeped in what Chris Matthews is calling Americanism–it is populist and inclusive, it is family-oriented, it is values-based more than economics-based, it is deeply patriotic, it has a centuries old military tradition, and it comprised a large percentage of Reagan Democrats. Webb further warns that the Republican Party strategy is heavily directed toward keeping peace with this culture; by contrast, over the past generation the Democrats have consistently alienated this group, to their detriment.
In the end, in order to win, Obama must heed Webb’s warning and craft a strategy that will capture the core of this vote. I believe, however, that this is McCain’s vote to lose, and that Obama can capture enough of it to be successful only if the McCain campaign is ineffective in defining Obama’s true character and ideology, which are totally alien to this culture.