Politics & Policy

Cracks in the Glass Ceiling

Hillary's historic run over, we don't yet know how her supporters will break in the general.

Washington, D.C. – Hillary Clinton offered the requisite thanks to her supporters in her concession speech Saturday at the National Building Museum in Washington, but not before getting in one last dig at Barack Obama.

And I want to start today by saying how grateful I am to all of you, to everyone who poured your hearts and your hopes into this campaign, who drove for miles and lined the streets waving homemade signs, who scrimped and saved to raise money, who knocked on doors and made calls, who talked, sometimes argued with your friends and neighbors . . . (emphasis added).

If you were actually standing inside the cavernous hall, that last line resulted in what was unquestionably the loudest applause of her speech. Given how hard-fought the Democratic primary has been, the line was greeted with instant recognition. No doubt most of the supporters of Hillary, whose political style is policy-oriented and workmanlike, found themselves at loggerheads at one time or another with a fellow Democrat fully immersed in the Obama cult of personality.

Just two days ago, Obama held a rally in nearby Virginia at the Nissan Pavillion — a 25,000-seat outdoor amphitheatre — which dwarfed Hillary’s turnout here today — so it’s pretty obvious which style Democrats as a whole find more captivating. That said, Hillary supporters acted cool toward Obama. Every mention of Obama’s name — including her seemingly enthusiastic endorsement of him — elicited loud and sustained boos with large numbers of the audience visibly refusing to clap. In Pavlovian fashion, they even booed when Hillary said, “Could an African-American really be our president? And Senator Obama has answered that .” One Hillary supporter was even leaning against the wall, sobbing.

While Obama’s charisma with a large segment of the electorate is undeniable, what Hillary Clinton’s concession clearly demonstrated is that he is also a polarizing figure on an aesthetic level. With a few key exceptions, the two candidates’ policy positions differ very little, and yet considerable acrimony remains over who should champion those same policies.

In this way, Hillary’s supporters valued her for perhaps the same reason that Obama’s supporters came to despise her. When Hillary talks, the seams show. There’s no transcendence, just nuts-and-bolts politics and shopworn political sentiments. She even tells corny anecdotes — such as the one in her concession speech about the 13-year-old girl from Ohio who took the money she had saved for a Disney World vacation and spent it instead on traveling with her mother to Pennsylvania to volunteer on the campaign.

At this, the political press may engage in a bit of eye-rolling, and younger voters looking for “new” politics may not respond. But for everybody in attendance at her concession speech, she hit her marks. Given her 18 million votes — and primary triumphs in key states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California — it’s hard to deny that certain voters found her likeable enough. If the Democratic primary process weren’t so needlessly byzantine, she would likely be the party’s candidate.

Meanwhile, for Hillary supporters attuned to the practical nature of politics, Obama’s Calgon-take-me-away approach rings hollow. He may promise the world, but the inexperienced senator seems ill-suited to shoulder the burdens of Atlas. As the campaign progressed through Obama’s opportunistic flip-flops over Jeremiah Wright, flag pins, and talks with the Iranian president, Hillary actually demonstrated more integrity of message — ironic, considering her husband is well known as a political chameleon.

While it’s true that Hillary struggled to connect with voters on superficial levels and the Clintonian penchant for politically expedient mendacity reared its ugly head with her “sniper fire” confabulation, her policy convictions rarely wavered — driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants being a lonely exception.

A statement issued by the McCain campaign in response to her concession speech made an interesting and relevant observation about Hillary’s most significant edge over Obama:

Ultimately, and ironically, it seems she fell victim to a vast left-wing conspiracy that resented her generally centrist foreign policy views (early support for the Iraq war, support for Kyl-Lieberman [a resolution validating possible military action against Iran], unwavering support for Israel, etc.).

And so it was interesting that she barely touched on foreign policy in her concession speech today. She mentioned Iraq only twice, she mentioned terrorism only once, and she didn’t mention Iran at all. After all, her serious approach to each of these issues proved a liability in the Democratic primary. She spent years building a strong record on national security, and in the end her party opted for a candidate with no national security experience at all.

Not only is Obama inexperienced in foreign policy, his foreign-policy positions are completely untrustworthy. An off-the-cuff comment about being willing to engage in one-on-one diplomacy with some of the world’s most dangerous leaders without preconditions became official campaign policy — until persistent questions mounted and his position moderated. And just this past week, in a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he seemingly reversed course on three key foreign policy positions.

By avoiding discussion of foreign policy, Mrs. Clinton may well have performed an act of kindness for Obama, as it would have only made him look small by comparison. A CNN poll — the first after Obama became the presumptive nominee — showed the Illinois senator in a statistical tie against McCain, hardly the plum position in which the Democratic candidate should be, given the Republican’s unpopularity.

Hillary’s failed run in the primary will likely prove far more historic than many campaigns that successfully captured the nomination. With the remembrance of the Hillary option looming over Obama, will her exit from the race highlight Obama’s relative weaknesses on foreign policy and inability to win over more traditional segments of the Democratic base, such as blue-collar and Catholic voters? Or will Hillary’s followers eventually hew the party line? Consider that, even while throwing her support behind Obama, Hillary didn’t use the opportunity to attack, or even mention, John McCain, a fact the McCain campaign took pains to note.

With Hillary’s exit, there’s hole in the hearts of many Democratic voters. McCain needs to quickly take advantage of that opening as fast as Obama needs to close it. With Hillary out, the next few weeks will be crucial.

– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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