The Democratic Divide

Last Tuesday, during the debate in Las Vegas, the leading Democratic contenders were asked to name their biggest weaknesses. Hillary Clinton cited her impatience at getting results. John Edwards said he felt other people's pain too much, qualities that are more about self-aggrandizement than self-criticism. Barack Obama was the only one of the three candidates at Tuesday's Democratic debate in Las Vegas who came close to confessing a real failing. He said he tells his staff not to hand him any paper he needs until two seconds ahead of time, "because I'll lose it." He has a messy desk and needs someone to help him keep track of things.

Hillary pounced on the notion that someone could be president without a firm grip on the bureaucracy. Obama countered that keeping track of paper is not what the presidency is about. "It involves having a vision about where the country needs to go and bringing together the best people," he said. The flare-up goes to the heart of the dispute between them: how to define the job of president. She'd be good at managing the office, but less good at inspiring the nation. He can inspire, but can he manage?

We have less to go on in evaluating Obama. But we can judge him by his campaign. In terms of scope and effectiveness, it rivals the organization the Clintons have been assembling for years, if not decades. Obama reaches beyond stereotypes as the first African-American candidate whose appeal transcends racial pride. Hillary's refusal to say whether Obama is prepared to be president has struck a nerve in the African-American community, whose voters are torn between their loyalty to the Clintons and their dismay at what seem to some to be coded appeals to undermine his candidacy.

The Clinton campaign, for all its vaunted professionalism, appears to have lost its way in a jumble of racially charged remarks that, whether by design or by accident, have elevated race consciousness. The two candidates called a truce at the Las Vegas debate, but the damage has been done. President Clinton's legacy has been tarnished, perhaps permanently, with a constituency where he was once so beloved he was considered the first black president. The nasty exchanges could cost Hillary with African-American voters. And whoever wins the nomination could pay the price in November for a party with one segment or another turned off by the exclusionary tactics.

President Clinton is described as "dejected" by the turn of events. In a flurry of phone calls over the weekend to friends and supporters, he vented his frustration and anger, asking for assessments of what's gone wrong with the campaign. He's angry with the media for treating Obama like the Second Coming while treating Hillary like yesterday's news. And he's defensive about what he said (calling the portrayal of Barack Obama as an antiwar hero "a fairy tale"--when in reality Obama's voting record on the subject in the Senate has been rather similar to Hillary's), arguing that it's been taken out of context to imply he was denigrating Obama's candidacy. Some of those who spoke with the former president gave him an earful about playing the race card--and complained that Hillary's message was still more about her than about the aspirations of her audience. "She found her voice, and it's the old voice," complained one strategist.

The overall impression from those who spoke with him: Clinton sees himself and his wife as victims. She was right when she said it took a president, Lyndon Johnson, to help turn Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream into legislative reality. She may not have meant to minimize Dr. King or John F. Kennedy, whose leadership and assassination played a key role, but she should recognize how her words wound, even by omission. She sat by silently as Black Entertainment Television executive Robert Johnson made a coy reference at a Clinton rally to Obama's admitted drug use as a teenager while debunking his candidacy as "a reasonable, likeable Sidney Poitier in 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner'." She could have ended the controversy right there if she had stood up and disavowed the remarks. Hillary subsequently distanced herself and Johnson later apologized, but the damage was done.

This is America under a microscope. The two biggest unresolved social problems--gender and race--are playing themselves out at the ballot box. Exit polls in Michigan revealed that nearly 70 percent of African-Americans who participated in Tuesday's Democratic primary voted uncommitted, an early warning of discontent in the black community. Hillary Clinton was the only leading candidate whose name was on the ballot because of a dispute with party officials; still, African-American voters withheld their support. The Democratic Party establishment has been so busy congratulating itself for diversity it failed to sort out how two wings of the party would engage each other, leaving it to Clinton and Obama to figure it out for themselves. She needs a share of the African-American vote to win the nomination, and he doesn't want to inflame white suburban America by presenting a narrow race-based appeal. Hillary is impatient, but she won't get to the White House if she doesn't find a way to capture the energy and enthusiasm Obama produces. This election is about hurrying history, not holding it back.