"I guess this is how the West was won," Hillary Clinton exulted at her victory rally in Las Vegas after the Democratic caucuses.
Well, not exactly, ma’am. Yet how the Clintons, by deftly playing the race and gender cards, turned back the greatest single challenge to a Clinton Restoration will be studied for a long time to come.
It began in Iowa, where Barack Obama, the first African-American crossover candidate with broad appeal to all racial and ethnic groups, was on fire in a state that was overwhelmingly white.
Came then Billy Shaheen, the Clinton New Hampshire co-chair, to suggest that, were Barack to be nominated, Republicans would ask when he had stopped using drugs and whether he ever bought or sold drugs. Mark Penn of the Clinton campaign denied on MSNBC’s "Hardball" that his team was raising the "cocaine issue."
Mission accomplished, Shaheen dutifully resigned. Bill Clinton drove the point home, telling an interviewer that to nominate Obama would be a "roll of the dice."
Nevertheless, Barack won Iowa going away and stormed into New Hampshire for what pundits predicted would be a defeat for Hillary so crushing it would be the final chapter of the Clinton era.
Then Bill Clinton told a Dartmouth audience that Obama’s claim to being consistently antiwar was a "fairy tale."
That, plus the media pile-on, Barack’s snide dismissal of her in the debate — "You’re popular enough, Hillary" — and her choked-up moment hours before voting began caused the women of New Hampshire to rally in sympathy. Obama’s lead, estimated by some at 15 points, vanished, and Hillary won what became one of the great upsets in New Hampshire history.
Stunned and stung, Barack’s African-American backers then rushed into the baited trap. One after another, they headed for the TV cameras to charge that the Clintons had fought dirty, forcing voters to focus on the race and gender of the candidates rather than on their records, ideas and issues.
When Hillary said sweetly that while Dr. Martin Luther King was the inspirational leader of the civil rights revolution, LBJ was the indispensable leader who had enacted the laws, King, martyr-hero of black America, became an issue.
As the raillery grew acrimonious and the rage among Barack’s backers rose, his black support solidified, but his white support, recoiling from race politics, peeled away. And the sisterhood rallied to Hillary.
Robert Johnson of Black Entertainment Television then stoked the fire once more, asserting that when Bill and Hillary were fighting for civil rights, Barack was in Chicago doing whatever he was doing in the neighborhoods. The implication: Barack was doing drugs, while Bill and Hillary marched. Denying malevolent intent, Johnson, too, apologized.
But the damage has been done. And reviewing the returns from Nevada and the polls in South Carolina, it may be irreversible. Barack is no longer a crossover candidate who transcends race. The color-blind coalition he seemed to be assembling appears to be coming apart.
His momentum is gone. The emotional movement that was Iowa has passed. The media are no longer smitten. And as African-Americans rally to him, Democratic women, a majority of the party, are rallying around Hillary.
Consider the stark Nevada returns. Though Barack used as the refrain of his concession speech in New Hampshire "Yes, we can!" — the battle cry of Hispanics, "Si, se puede" — though he was endorsed by the Culinary Workers Union, he lost Hispanics by nearly two to one.
Equally ominous, he lost both the white vote and the women’s vote by the same three-to-two margin, while sweeping the African-American vote five to one. Once a candidate who happened to be black, Obama is now the black candidate.
This may be a portent of what is to come. With Hispanics, whites and women a huge majority of Democrats, Hillary should sweep a majority of states in the Southwest and the West, including Texas and California, where African-Americans are relatively few in number and Hispanics are many.
If Barack loses South Carolina, he is cooked, as the Clintonites have made him the favorite. Even if he carries South Carolina, it will be written off as black folks coming out for a native son.
Folks will look instead at how well, or badly, he does among whites. If Hillary and Edwards crush him among white voters, the message will be that the Democratic Party will risk ruin if it nominates an African-American who has shown little appeal among whites and even less among Hispanics. For whites and Hispanics are the swing votes in presidential politics.
In three weeks, Barack has been ghettoized. The crossover candidate, the great liberal hope, has become a Jesse Jackson, who is ceded the black vote and a few states, then given a speaking role at the convention, as the party moves on to the serious business of electing a president.
One cannot deny that Bill Clinton was right. Nominating Barack would be a "roll of the dice." But nor can one deny that Bill and Hillary helped make sure the risk would be one the party would not take.