Opinion: The Democrats' Embarrassment of Riches

By Peter Ross Range

With two of the strongest personalities in Democratic politics vying for the party's presidential nomination, the party is facing a tough choice. But either way the primaries in Ohio and Texas go next week, America stands to gain.

How can the Democrats go wrong?
REUTERS

How can the Democrats go wrong?

This election is a head-spinner. First, it’s Hillary Clinton. She’s ahead in all the polls for months and months, even among African-Americans. Then, suddenly, after the Iowa primary, it’s Barack Obama, a winner with momentum -- nearly a sure thing to take New Hampshire. But, wait! Now comes Hillary again, scooping up the women and the independents to remind Obama that she’s had an electoral machine in New Hampshire for 16 years, ever since Bill Clinton made his comeback there in 1992.

Then comes South Carolina. It’s Obama again, riding the tide of African-American support. Still, some of Hillary’s traditional supporters among African-American leaders stay with her. To them, the million-dollar-smile of Barack Obama is still a shooting star, a man destined for great things, just not this year. “I want Barack Obama for president -- in 2016,” intones former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young, a hero of the American civil rights movement.

And sure enough, Hillary’s base sticks with her through Super Tuesday, giving her the big states of California, New York and New Jersey while Obama takes eight smaller ones. Wait! They’re in a virtual tie.

Now things start to heat up, but good. People like me, a veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement as well as of the glorious Clinton years in the 1990s, are beginning to feel whipsawed. Obama proves his chops in a string of states, winning higher and higher percentages among African-Americans, cutting into Hillary’s base of white women and lower-income voters. He even begins to edge her out among white men, a huge psychological shift.

Then come Obama’s victories in Wisconsin and Hawaii, making it a string of 10 straight wins! As the campaign roars into Texas and Ohio for the March 4 primaries, he seems to have seized the mantle of inevitability that Hillary wore for so long before the primary season. Analysts calculate that Clinton would have to win both states by a landslide just to pull even with Obama. And hypothetical match-ups between John McCain and either of the Democratic candidates show Obama beating the Republican by nearly five points, while Clinton loses to McCain by more than five points.

Even Clinton stalwarts like Congressman John Lewis, another civil rights hero who now sees the real possibility of an African-American president in his lifetime, are beginning to waver. Lewis, a great moral voice of the 1960s, always echoed Martin Luther King’s call for achievement of “the beloved community”-- a state of grace and racial comity when the color of one’s skin really didn’t matter. Is Obama about to make it happen? How can Lewis resist?

How can I resist? Well, I do, about once a day, especially when I read a detailed dissection of Obama’s policy programs. His offerings include cures for all that ails us, every program we all want, but no explanation of how to pay for them. In other words, once he’s in the White House, he'll have difficulty making it work. Clinton has something for everything, too. But she and her team, who have been there before, understand the budget battles and compromises ahead. Hillary is the vessel of Clintonism--programs and policies that work. Obama is the inspiration that people want to hear. Can he sustain it through Election Day?

Every other day I start feeling the Obamania again, compounded by the seeming inevitability. I’m moved by his rhetoric of unity and hope, even though I still have strong doubts about how he will do on such issues as foreign policy. Since he staked his campaign heavily on the Iraq war (“I was against it before it started!”) Obama would face a huge challenge from John McCain if things continue to improve in Iraq through November. It could happen: Violence by insurgents and sectarian militias is down 80 percent from one year ago, the Iraqi military says. Ironically, Obama (or Clinton) would have just as big a challenge from McCain if, God forbid, there’s a turn for the worse in Iraq or some new terror attack on US soil.

While Hillary strains to sound inspiring with a voice and style better suited to running policy meetings, Obama, the natural, croons like a political Sinatra. I'm seduced by the idea that we as Americans can rise above some of our differences, and, yes, that just having Barack and Michelle in the White House, throwing the obligatory state dinners--"Hello, President Sarkozy! Hello, King Fahd! Hello, President Hu Jintao!--would set the world back on its heels a bit. Michelle Obama, with her forthright style and raw intelligence, is becoming a super-star in her own right. The very thought of an African-American First Lady takes my breath away. America is different; America is about the future; let’s try to get it right.

I constantly feel the ground shifting under me. It shows, if nothing else, that we Democrats are, for once, blessed with an embarrassment of riches, almost a no-lose situation. Is it a landslide? An avalanche? Or just a passing tremor? Never have Democratic Party politics felt so seismic, so unpredictable. Or so good.

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