It may seem hard to believe, but the animosity, the vitriolic name-calling, the camera-ready public protests and the massive self-pity that characterized much of San Francisco’s politics throughout the 1990s is going national.
The keystone of this aggrieved campaign style is the idea that virtue should triumph and that all who stand in its way are somehow morally bankrupt or worse. Here in San Francisco, when Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez ran against San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, his campaign boiled down to one idea: Progressives like me are good, everyone else is bad. You’re good, you should vote for me.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? On the national stage, oddly enough, it’s not the long-suffering Progressives who are ratcheting up the volume. It’s the more conservative, corporate wing of the party, led by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The theater that passed for public debate over the weekend when the Democratic National Committee met to split its primary baby and allow convention delegates from the rogue states of Michigan and Florida a half-vote each in Denver was familiar to observers of San Francisco politics.
There’s the self-justifying: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has served her country well – she deserves to be president! There was the self-pity: As a female candidate, Clinton’s had to face more scrutiny than Obama! And there were the scare tactics: Clinton, rather than Obama, can beat McCain. Oh, and let’s not forget the wallowing as Clinton supporters rolled their eyes and murmured little asides like, “I wonder what democracy looks like,” in reference to the DNC’s decision. It was all articulated – for better or worse – by the card-carrying protestors, the booing and shouting that punctuated Saturday’s meeting.
What’s really galling – and gall is a key element in this sort of politics – is that Hillary Clinton is trying to position herself as the candidate of “the people.” She can say this because she’s won more popular votes than her rival Sen. Barack Obama and because she may continue – using her campaign’s odd math (caucuses aren’t counted, ballots cast are) – to do so. This is a ham-handed way to position Clinton as the Al Gore of this contest – the person who will get screwed by crooked back-room tactics.
But Hillary Clinton isn’t a woman of the people by any stretch of the imagination. Her husband, the poor boy born in Hope, Ark., who realized the American dream and rose to become president through hard-work, intelligence and and no shortage of political chicanery, used to be “the people’s” representative. Sen. Clinton, born in a respectable Chicago suburb, once a Barry Goldwater supporter, a graduate of Wellesley and Yale, has the populist touch of, well, of a moderate Republican.
The real issue here isn’t that Hillary Clinton is being treated badly because she’s a woman. To paraphrase Geraldine Ferraro: If Hillary Clinton were a white man running the campaign she’s run, he’d have been drummed out of this contest back in March. Clinton’s gender is keeping her in the race, not pushing her out.
The Clintons have simply run a lousy campaign. It would have been a perfectly fine effort in 1992. Today it falls short because it’s a corporate-driven 90′s-style effort to out-spend and out-spin its rivals. Obama’s more embracing style is working much better. And voters are responding.
Those are the mechanics. The Clinton campaign falls short for other, more traditional reasons: the screw-ups by the two candidates involved. Sen. Clinton started her campaign against Obama by dissing the Rev. Martin Luther King. Her husband followed up, equating Obama’s efforts with that of the corrupt and almost universally distrusted Jesse Jackson. She’s ending it by reminding folks that presidential candidates are sometimes assassinated and asserting her popularity among uneducated white folks who aren’t going to vote for a black president. He’s offered to talk her into taking the vice presidency, a trial balloon that only brought – out into the open – the question of what he’ll be doing once the family’s back in Washington.
In the end, it’s hard to avoid a second conclusion, one that undercuts pretty much every statement Clinton’s made about her historic run for the White House. This isn’t about her. It’s about them. If Obama becomes the nominee – with the money-making machinery he’s built, with his support among black voters, with his grace and, oh yeah, the support of the Kennedy family – it’s Bill Clinton, not his wife, who’s the loser. He will no longer be the Big Dog of the Democratic Party. He’ll be another ex-president. Just like Jimmy Carter.
And that undercuts pretty much every other assertion the Clintons are attempting to make. Because if it were really all about her, we wouldn’t be talking to – or about – him.