January 30, 2008
Three Questions, Two Answers
Barack Obama comes out of the South Carolina primary with a full head of steam, thanks not only to his victory, but to the dimensions of the victory and the composition of the electorate that gave him the victory. But what South Carolina gave, Super Tuesday could well take away. There are three basic questions about Obama’s candidacy, going in to South Carolina. The primary there began to answer two of them. The third—and the hardest—is yet to be answered or even convincingly addressed.
Question 1: Will enough white voters vote for a black candidate to make him viable in the primaries and general election?
Well, maybe. Edwards got about 40 percent of the white vote in South Carolina, Clinton about 36 percent and Obama about 24 percent, considerably more than polls had forecast. One commentator called it “almost a three-way split,” while another described it as “a huge development going forward…[proof that Obama] can appeal to all demographics.” But in fact, the South Carolina results are more suggestive than predictive. Why?
- South Carolina is atypical. Unlike the states that a Democrat must win to win the presidency—New York, California, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—South Carolina is a relatively small, predominantly Republican state whose Democratic electorate is majority African American, and has only a small Hispanic population.
- Although 24% of the white vote is not a bad showing for Obama, it means that more than three-quarters of the white voters in the Democratic primary voted against him. Project those percentages against the white electorates in blue and purple states and give him the 78% of the black vote he won in South Carolina, and it still doesn’t add up to 50% of the entire electorate in more typical states.
- Edwards’ vote was almost certainly elevated by the fact of his Carolinian and southern roots. Take that away, as it will be taken away in the states of the north, west and Midwest, and it’s by no means certain that Obama will be the beneficiary.
This is not to say that Obama, with his South Carolina momentum, can’t or won’t do well in more typical states. It’s rather to apply to South Carolina primary the verdict that Scottish law allows and American does not: Not Proven.
Question 2: Can Obama’s high-minded politics survive the cut-and-slash realities of campaigning and governing?
Again, on the evidence of South Carolina, maybe. What would happen, everyone wondered, when the Clintons took the gloves off? What would happen when the Republicans put the brass knuckles on? Would Obama be forced to follow suit? Would he stick to his principles and be cut down like a welterweight KOd by the heavyweight champ?
Or would public revulsion at bare-knuckle politics punish brawlers and force them to follow Obama’s example? That was—still is—the hope. But negative campaigning has endured because it has been successful. The Clinton campaign dispatched the former president to throw the roundhouse punches: Obama’s campaign of hope was just a “fairy tale.” He had waffled on the war in Iraq. Obama’s candidacy was just Jesse Jackson redux.
This time it didn’t work. Exit polls show Clinton within striking distance of Obama with voters who decided a month or more ago. But voters who decided after the snipeorama started—the last month, the last week, the last days—cut her share of the vote almost in half, and gave it, not to Obama, whose share stayed about even, but to Edwards. A slight surge toward Clinton among voters who decided on election day may reflect the Clinton campaign’s retreat from negativity at the very end. But the larger trend suggests that, at least in this state, in this election, the roundhouse punches missed their target and hit, instead, the fighter who was throwing them.
Question 3: “Where’s the beef” in Obama’s politics of hope?
South Carolina tells us next to nothing about this, the central question about Obama as a candidate and as a president. Like every candidate, Obama has a laundry list of things he’d do. The economy: “increase investments in infrastructure, energy independence, education, and research and development, modernize and simplify our tax code… implement trade policies that benefit American workers and increase the export of American goods.” Education: “ensure that all students have a quality education regardless of race, class, or background.” Fiscal policy: “reduce our national debt by returning to responsible fiscal policies.” Health care: “bring together businesses, the medical community, and members of both parties around a comprehensive solution to this crisis.”
Who doesn’t believe in those things? What’s different about what Obama is proposing that will disarm the Republican opposition that has up until now blocked not only these kinds of solutions but any solutions? Where are the departures from Democratic orthodoxy that might attract enough Republicans to get past threatened filibusters?
It’s worth remembering, for example, that, in combination with her political ineptitude, it was Hillary Clinton’s attempt to “bring together businesses [and] the medical community” to forge a comprehensive health care solution that doomed her effort to failure. We remember a plan too complex to be understood, much less accepted. The main reason her plan was so complex was its effort to build a solution around the existing health care establishment and structure, rather than trying for a simpler system.
If these things were as easy as proposing policies, they would have been done already. It is not partisanship in and of itself that prevents progress. It is that Republicans and Democrats have radically different ideas of what constitutes progress, and neither is willing, for the sake of finding common ground, to support measures that they believe would not work and, in not working, would damage the people and institutions that are the intended beneficiaries.
Where are the policies, what are the processes, that will bridge these philosophical and political chasms? Does Obama hope to convert conservatives through the force of inspiration as he has converted so many Democrats? Does he hope to sweep the public with him on a tide of civic patriotism and sweep the Republicans along like so much flotsam and jetsam?
Of the three challenges that stand between Obama and victory, this is the most difficult. And it’s the one about which, even after his victory in South Carolina, we still know the least.