Ceausescu, Skeffington or Mondale? Are the Clintons Really Kaput?

Starting with Obama’s big win in South Carolina, followed by the exit polling that suggested Bill Clinton had offended Democrats with his race-baiting, and enhanced by Sen. Ted and Caroline Kennedy’s seemingly poignantly symbolic endorsements — something close to an Obama fever is sweeping over media commentators. Maybe they are right, and Bill and Hillary are about to be discarded (figuratively, not literally) as dispositively as Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were in Romania on Christmas Day 1989 — a fierce personal rejection of a ruling couple.

The metaphor that is being more bandied about is that this is "The Last Hurrah" for the Clintons. This refers to the eponymous classic Edwin O’Connor novel from 1956 in which a beloved and superb old-time big-city mayor (Frank Skeffington) loses his last race to a faceless cipher because times have changed. In that instance, what had changed was that big-city mayors were being undercut by New Deal national welfare programs in their ability to deliver money, housing, jobs and health care largesse to the voters.

What the Clintons are betting on is that the correct correlation is to Walter Mondale’s 1984 nomination fight with Gary Hart, who stylized himself as the fresh face who would appeal to the younger voters and criticized Mondale as old-fashioned and representing failed policies of the past. Mondale relied on his institutional power and the allegation that Hart’s "new ideas" were insubstantial. (He famously used the advertisement phrase of the time, "Where’s the beef?")

Certainly, Obama is vulnerable to the charge that his "change" theme is insubstantial. His and Hillary’s policies seem almost identical. And when he talks about working together with Republicans rather than perpetuating the old partisan divisiveness, Hillary could challenge Obama to explain where he would cave to Republicans to end the divisiveness.

After all, if he is going to approach partisan, divided Washington with sweet words but no policy compromise, he merely will perpetuate the divisiveness. So he will have to compromise. Hillary could ask him in a debate: "Which Republican policies will you cave to? Tax breaks for the rich, more troops to Iraq, support for Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Tobacco, No Child Left Behind, NAFTA, no national health care? And if you are not going to compromise, then isn’t your claim to bring people together as phony as George Bush’s claim to be a uniter not a divider? After all, the only people to be brought together in Washington are Republicans and Democrats." It seems to me that Obama’s "rising above partisanship" balloon is dangerously vulnerable to being punctured by a few simple, logical questions.

But Obama is betting on the last hurrah metaphor (except for the fact that the winner is a cipher in the book), only in the Obama retelling of the tale, what has changed in American politics is not national welfare but American racial attitudes. Historically, race (traditionally black-white but now, with the rise of the number of Hispanics, Hispanic-black, as well) sadly has shaped American voting patterns.

The early Democratic primary returns are inconclusive — but suggestive that the old ways are not passed yet. In South Carolina, Obama got about 80 percent of the black vote and about 25 percent of the white vote in an admittedly three-way race. If the second choice of Edwards’ 40 percent of the white vote were to split only 2-1 against Obama (in fact, the white vote split 3-1 against Obama ) — and if the South Carolina numbers are representative of national racial attitudes amongst Democratic Party voters — then that would suggest that the Clintons’ gamble that they can polarize the white vote at about 60-40 percent in their favor will be an electoral winner. And a polarized Hispanic vote (which so far has been running at least 2-1 against Obama in Democratic primaries) would only add to the Clintons’ electoral advantage in California and other states with a high percentage of Hispanics.

The danger to the Clintons is that this ugly racial politics will backfire and the ugliness of the Clintons’ racial calculations will trump the historic ugliness of racial consciousness in voters. Young, less bigoted voters will come out in large numbers. (Even older bigoted voters will be disgusted by the cynical Clinton manipulation of their prejudices and vote for Obama.)

To finesse this danger, it would not surprise me if Hillary starts distancing herself from Bill. She might say: "He was acting on his own. He suffered from sleep deprivation. I have told him, quite frankly, I don’t want that sort of talk to continue, and it is not what my campaign is about."

If a credulous media and public buy into that phony claim, Hillary would get the best of three worlds: She would have racially polarized the electorate to her advantage, avoided responsibility for it, and shown herself to be a strong feminist woman who finally can put her naughty husband in his place. I’m pulling for the Skeffington metaphor, but I’m betting on Mondale.