Has an American national political contest ever been so utterly transfigured in so short a time as the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?
Just a few short weeks ago, we were falling inexorably, willingly into the waiting arms of the woman we knew would protect and provide for us. Sure, we flirted a little bit with the boys at the bar. We felt a thrill when our hand “accidentally” brushed John Edwards’ knee under the table. We admired Bill Richardson’s Latino éclat. But we were just having a little fun before settling down to eight years of blessed sanity and nutritious policy.
The prospect wasn’t exciting, but we’d had enough excitement to last our lives. Our previous relationship left us broke, disillusioned, and inclined to flinch in response to any sudden movement. We had learned our lesson, and we were determined to exercise better judgment this time. Hillary cared for us, we knew. Might not respect and admiration blossom into a warmer devotion in the fullness of time?
He had been there all along of course. Why didn’t we notice? Was he wearing a new tie? Had he shaved off his goatee?
Or was it the incandescent bolt of heaven’s white light that set his chiseled profile aflame?
Our heart raced. Our blood rushed. Our minds went all higgledy piggledy. And we think we might throw up.
Oh my God, we’re in love.
Political campaigns pass from phase to phase in ways that often seem predictable in hindsight, and this latest turn of events is no exception. We watched Barack and Hillary debate prior to Super Tuesday and vainly endeavored to detect meaningful policy distinctions. We were like a child trying to choose between two cupcakes in a bakery display. Does one have a more icing than the other? We closed one eye and bent over to get a fresh sight line.
Then there was a flash. And when our vision cleared, it was a new world. And we discovered that our two cupcakes could not be more different.
Obama’s astounding Super Tuesday comeback, in which he erased a double-digit deficit to achieve near-parity in a mere two weeks, attests to the sea change that occurred. Much of the credit for the turnaround is due to the man himself and his magnetic appeal. But there was calculation as well. He and his staff envisioned this transmogrification and consciously positioned themselves to reap the windfall of the moment, lighting match after match under the Democratic electorate and praying feverishly that the flame would catch before it was too late.
But if the punditocracy was caught off guard, it was because they were so busy watching the spark that they ignored the tinder. In short, they underestimated the magnitude and intensity of latent emotion in American voters. It seemed that the race would be about a return to competence and stability, that political cynicism was so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that it could only be courted, not confronted.
But now it is clear that we were primed for an emotional outpouring. We were a super-saturated solution just waiting for the faintest touch of the catalyst that instantaneously alters everything. Obama is that catalyst, and what is precipitating now is a genuine political fervor. This was supposed to be Hillary’s moment. Didn’t she check all the right boxes? She’s smart, hardworking, right-thinking, and intimately associated with a past that most regard–with their usual selective and myopic recall–as days of wine and roses.
But in the context of this new narrative, the promise of competence and safety is underwhelming, and to wish for a return to the familiar ways and faces of the Clinton years seems an act of cowardice.
Yes, we enjoyed Bill’s homespun wit, his studied good-old-boy affectation, and his bedroom eyes. He charmed and soothed us, and he was a perfect match for his time. Oil was at $10 a barrel and the stock market was juiced. Who wanted to make waves?
And he left us with fond memories. That’s why when Hillary asked if it would be alright if he lived in our basement for a while after the wedding, we agreed.
But no cabinet post. And he buys his own groceries. And as soon as he gets a job, he has to find his own apartment.
We concede Hillary’s impressive resume and talent. But let’s not pretend the choice before us is purely one of head versus heart. Obama is not some smooth-talking Lothario looking to seduce an America on the rebound. There’s a reason that the most educated segment of voters trend strongly his way, and it’s more than his dreamy eyes. But at the same time, it’s undeniable that the Obama juggernaut is driven by emotion. Does that mean we are setting ourselves up for disappointment? Is the excitement imbuing us with a fleeting and fickle courage doomed to evaporate in the face of adversity?
This outpouring of faith and feeling does not displace our hopes for administrative success, for legislative progress, for remade international relationships and a thriving economy. Rather it is an indispensable vessel to carry those hopes to fruition. Those who think this enthusiasm speeds us on a fool’s errand, consider: For many decades we have repressed all traces of political idealism within ourselves, always seeking safety, predictability and stasis. Doing so has served, at best, only to ensure that as we marched drearily into poverty and disrepute, we did so to a steady beat.
Now, the problems we confront are more daunting than any in our history. Global warming requires an internationally coordinated response for which no prior model exists. Our economic woes are the product of suffocating debt and permanent resource scarcity; if there is a cure, it will not be pleasant. Our relationship with the international community is going through a change more profound than any since the end of the second World War. Policy alone, no matter how brilliant, simply will not bring us intact through the challenges to come. We’ll need a leader who knows how to cultivate the qualities of optimism, restraint, and selflessness within us, and how to wring out every ounce when the going gets rough.
That is why this tide of emotion is more than relevant. It is the crucial prerequisite of whatever success can follow.
But the biggest change we will make is the one we’ve already begun.
You see, Obama doesn’t talk about what he is going to do. He talks about what we are going to do. And in that phrasing, he expresses the most frightening truth that any politician can utter. A truth so terrifying that no President has whispered it in almost 50 years. He is telling us that the problem has never been our leaders.
The problem is us.
It’s a mortifying realization. But if we broke it, doesn’t that mean we can fix it too? So we’re going to solve our problem. We’re going to say “yes” to the notion that government can be better than it has been. Whatever comes after, we will never regret it. Because saying “yes” isn’t the precursor to a triumph. It is the triumph.
So that’s it, baby. It’s not you. It’s us. We’re sorry it had to end this way. We never meant to hurt you.
You can keep our CDs. But we want our superdelegates back.