Just when it appeared that the identity of the Republicans’ presidential nominee would not be known for some time — perhaps not until the convention — the Democrats are the ones who may be headed for a brokered convention.
The Clintons are bracing for such a possibility. They hinted as much when they suggested, within moments of their 2:1 defeat in the South Carolina primary, that they might request that the convention seat delegates from Florida and Michigan, even though all candidates had agreed to abide by the national party’s decision not to. (This was supposed to have been the price these states were supposed to pay for advancing the dates of their primaries.)
The Clintons were clearly signaling to Barack Obama that, in the event he continues to accrue sufficient delegates necessary to deny Hillary a majority, they will seek to deny Obama the nomination with the votes of these phantom delegations, plus those of “super-delegates.” (The latter, of course, are party “big shots,” who are named to state delegations after the others have been selected by party voters.) All of a sudden, it is 1968 all over again, but with some ironic and delicious twists.
That was the year when, after a hotly contested primary season, which forced an incumbent president out of the race, the convention chose as its nominee his stand-in, who had not won a single primary: Hubert Humphrey. The Clintons, as they used to remind audiences, were on the other side then. With delegates pledged to antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy and the slain Robert Kennedy failing to coalesce (the Kennedy forces rallied behind George McGovern), party hacks and union bosses went to work. They seem poised to do so again.
Obama shows signs that he now knows what he is up against. He appears aware that displacing entrenched elites is not an easy task. He must now decide whether he wants to be cast in the role of Adlai Stevenson or that of John F. Kennedy (to whom he is often compared–most recently, by the late president’s daughter in the New York Times on Sunday). Thus far, he has been JFK on the stump, and Adlai behind the podium in debate.
He recently evoked the name “Wal-Mart,” but failed to state why voters should object to Hillary’s sitting on its board. (Why, after all, should low- and medium-income voters object to lower prices?). Is this not the sainted Adlai talking over the heads of the American people? Hillary showed no such compulsions. Her “slumlord” retort had been carefully rehearsed and she was quite pleased with her performance. Obama took pains to note that he believes Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon had more in common with each other than either did with Ronald Reagan. Yet he failed to say how. If Senator Obama believes that there are things about the 1990s that the American people would just as soon not repeat, he cannot depend on the press to spell that out for him. (Once the words fall from his lips they will, however, be only too happy to quote them.)
Obama also needs to paint in what Reagan would call “bold colors, not pastels” a picture of how he intends an Obama administration to “change” the country. (Expect Hillary, in a manner reminiscent of that other favorite of the super-delegates, Walter Mondale, to ask her challenger, “Where is the beef?”) If, as Obama appears aware, “Reagan Democrats” were Democrats who concluded that their interests, and those of the country, would be better served by crossing party lines, he needs to state what he intends to offer prospective “Obama Republicans.”
In the absence of such a clearly articulated vision, little will separate the two contenders, whether they like it or not, other than race, gender, and dynastic pretensions. Having pushed her party in the direction of identity politics and group rights, the woman who seeks to become the third baby-boomer president stands on the brink of being bested at her own game. For Obama to complete the task he began, he must strut more of his stuff. He can start by answering Mondale’s question.
–Alvin S. Felzenberg, a veteran of two Republican presidential administrations and an early supporter of Ronald Reagan, is author of the forthcoming Leaders We Deserved and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game (Basic Books).