Back on February 20, when Michelle Obama spoke before an enthusiastic crowd of supporters at the Community College of Rhode Island in Warwick, the seeds of the demise of Hillary Clinton’s presidential hopes for 2008 had already been planted.
Although Clinton went on to roll over Obama in Rhode Island’s March 4 primary, the Democratic upstart, by scoring a key series of early victories, undercut the notion that Hillary was bound to be the party’s nominee. On Tuesday, after months and months of intense campaigning, the Democratic Party’s historic embrace of a black presidential can-didate seemed both unremarkable and amazing.
The 2008 campaign now begins in earnest, with all kinds of intriguing subplots: will the Democrats indulge their penchant in recent presidential cycles for screwing up? Do Obama’s charisma and self-stated repudiation of politics as usual mark a new moment? And most significantly, given the choice between two senators, an older white war hero and a younger black lawyer-activist, how will denizens of middle America respond?
The climate seems congenial this year to the Democrats, particularly considering President Bush’s record and the sour economy. Yet although questions about Obama’s ability to appeal to white voters may have been overstated in recent months, the unprecedented dynamic of two men — one white, one black — squaring off for the presidency is bound to be intriguing.
The caricature issues of 2008 have already been aired: the Reverend Jeremiah Wright for Obama, and a McCain statement describing an ongoing and long-term US presence in Iraq. Although these seem bound to be resurrected, the six months until the election will allow, one imagines, for a far more full-bodied discussion.
In keeping with the expect-the-unexpected motif of this election cycle, the once-remote possibility of Clinton becoming Obama’s running mate is now in play, and it remains to be seen if McCain can come up with a similarly surprising prospect. Whether Clinton would help or hurt the Democratic ticket, of course, is another question.
Yet before looking forward, it’s worth recalling how Obama succeeded in completely upending the conventional wisdom: that Hillary Clinton, a deep-pocketed former first lady and masterful politician — was bound to be the Democratic presidential nominee.
By so doing, he has helped not just to inject a lot of fresh participation into American politics, but to affirm that the future is unwritten.