The dream weaver vs the problem solver

Barack Obama vs Hillary Clinton
Anne Summers

There's a story doing the rounds of New York City, where I am currently visiting, concerning a tied vote in one of the districts in the Democratic Caucus in Nevada a few weeks back. It being Las Vegas, a deck was produced, shuffled and the two precinct captains each invited to take a card. Barack Obama's captain drew a ten of clubs and sat back smiling; then Hillary Clinton's captain took his: the Queen of Hearts. The former First Lady who became a Senator and is now vying to become the first female President of the United States won the district - and the state. Luck was a lady that night, but Hillary Clinton has been on a losing streak ever since.

She has lost the last eight contests in the primary election battles, several by huge margins, and now has at least 100 fewer delegates committed to voting for her at the Democratic Convention in Denver, Colorado in August than her rival, Barack Obama. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Her strategy for winning the nomination was predicated on her attaining an unbeatable margin after the February 5 Super Tuesday contests where 22 states were up for grabs. Instead, while she won the big ones - New York, New Jersey, California, Massachusetts, Tennessee - Obama took the majority of states, giving him a seemingly unstoppable momentum that has made him the clear front-runner. Clinton always expected she would be the star candidate; instead she is fighting for her political life against a charismatic young African-American man who has taken the Democratic Party by storm.

The support he now has is quite extraordinary. When the contest began, Clinton could claim considerable, even majority, support among African-American voters. That is no longer the case. Perhaps more surprising, however, is the way in which other groups - high income earners, men, and young people - have flocked to him. Clinton's core supporters are older women and low-income working people. It's Starbucks (where Obama supporters hustle for votes) versus Walmart (where poor people shop and on whose board Hillary Clinton once served).

I arrived here at the height of the primary season, just three days after New York's. At every dinner party or other gathering I have attended in the past week, all of them with white, educated professionals, the majority around the table was invariably for Obama. Hillary supporters were shouted down, the distaste many Obamaites feel for her being transferred onto anyone who voted for her. Not only is it not cool for be for Hillary, it is portrayed as being downright old-fashioned, corrupt even. And this is in New York, Hillary's home state, and the city that is supposedly her power base.

Not so long ago, Democrats grumbled how they were 'spoilt for choice', feigning consternation that whoever they chose - the woman or the black - would make history. Now the contest has become bitter: families are split, usually along gender and generational lines; friends barely talk to each other and the resentment and even anger is extraordinary. Nowhere is this more apparent than with women who support Hillary and who can see the victory they barely dared hope for now slipping away. Some will even say that Obama is 'presumptuous' to have run now, when he is so young and inexperienced and seemingly incapable of winning the Presidential prize, thereby denying the older and patently more experienced Hillary the one shot she has at it.

'There's an older generation of women who feel it's their time,' says Wende Jager-Hyman, executive director of the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, an organisation founded by the writer Naomi Wolf. 'And they don't want it taken away from them'. She thinks such women will not vote in November if Hillary is not the candidate. This anger first erupted publicly on February 2 after Senator Teddy Kennedy endorsed Obama - or O'Bama, as some wags started calling him. Whether such an endorsement is worth anything is debatable but it was a shock to Clinton who had expected to be supported by the Democratic Party's patriarch. It also enraged many feminists who recalled the through-gritted-teeth political cover the women's movement has provided over the years to the prodigal Kennedy in return for his legislative support on key women's issues. The gloves soon came off.

Robin Morgan led the charge, pointing out that the younger Kennedys - children of the RFK to whom Obama is so often admiringly compared - had all endorsed Clinton whereas the 76 year old Teddy, along with his niece, JFK's daughter Caroline, had gone for Obama: 'Personally, I'm unimpressed with Caroline's longing for the Return of the Fathers,' Morgan wrote. 'Unlike the rest of the world, Americans have short memories. Me, I still recall Marilyn Monroe's suicide, and a dead girl named Mary Jo Kopechne in Chappaquiddick.' Morgan, compiler of the inspiring landmark feminist primer Sisterhood is Powerful in 1970 had in 1968 written 'Goodbye to All That' a call-to-arms essay that catalogued sexist attitudes and double standards prevalent at the time. The 2008 reprise of that work, thanks to the internet, ricocheted around the world within hours.

'Goodbye to a campaign where he [Obama] has to pass as white (which whites - especially wealthy ones - adore)", Morgan wrote, 'while she has to pass as male (which both men and women demanded of her, and then found unforgivable)'. She also bade farewell to today's double standard: 'When a sexist idiot screamed 'Iron my shirt!' at HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton], it was considered amusing; if a racist idiot shouted 'Shine my shoes!' at BO [Barack Obama], it would've inspired hours of airtime and pages of newsprint analysing our national dishonour'.

Morgan noted that when John McCain was asked 'How do we beat the bitch?' he replied, 'Excellent question!'. She wondered whether he would have given the same answer if the question had been: 'How do we beat the black bastard?' 'Why is it that the 'c' word is everywhere?' one young woman said to me this week. 'Yet the 'n' word would not be tolerated. There is such a double standard'.

She's right. Roger Stone, a long time Republican operative, has formed a tax-exempt anti-Hillary political group called 'Citizens United Not Timid'. Google 'I hate Hillary' and you are introduced to a blogosphere that seethes with vile and vituperative Hillary detestation, where the 'c' word is actually the least of it. The threats to her life are frequent and alarming and way beyond any usual political jousting. On the other hand, Google 'I hate Obama' and you will find content removed from most sites because they contravene laws that ban racial vilification.

Erica Jong, the famous author of Fear of Flying among other books, also entered the fray with a furious defence of Hillary in the Washington Post recently and has been inundated with hate-mail ever since. 'If Bill defends her, he's a pimp. If he doesn't, he's a creep,' Jong wrote this week in a private email. 'If Chelsea campaigns, it's cynical. If Obama trots out those cute little girls Michelle gave birth to, he's a family man. If Michelle attacks Hillary, it's news. If Hillary attacks Michelle - well she can't because that would be racist'.

If Obama becomes the candidate it is unlikely that the Republicans will feel so constrained. The people who were able to 'swiftboat' the war hero John Kerry in 2004 will have little compunction in pandering to the deep racist sentiments that are so engrained in American society. Hillary had to fire a campaign aide who pointed out that the Republicans will use Obama's middle name - Hussein - to unscrupulous advantage once the campaign is underway.

THERE ARE several factors fuelling the anti-Hillary sentiment among the New York elite. Many of course are swept away by Obama's soaring rhetoric. He is a compelling speaker who lifts the spirit and is a charismatic contrast both to the dyslexic utterances of the current President, George W. Bush, and to the wooden, workmanlike speeches of Hillary Clinton. But to date, Obama's orations have been remarkably light on when it comes to policy. He promises hope, he pledges a new politics but he has very little to say about what he would actually do if he became President. It would be remarkable if someone whose national governing experience consists of just three years in the Senate could actually just talk their way into the White House but I would not rule it out.

With their strong religious traditions, a great many Americans are very susceptible to revivalist-style rhetoric and Obama's speeches are perfectly pitched towards that tradition. They also inspire the young generation of supporters who were not born in 1968 when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the last great political orators, both died. I listened to Obama's wondrous speech at the University of Wisconsin, Madison earlier this week and found myself hoping he might go all the way. Minutes later, I heard Clinton's speech in El Paso; it was one of her better ones, but she cannot match Barack Obama's story-telling, his cadences, his timing, his narrative genius. She says all the right things but in all the wrong ways, then stands and nods, almost willing the audience to respond.

Barack Obama is the dream weaver, Hillary Clinton is the problem solver. Obama leaves you feeling good, Hillary bores you with details. And this is the danger for her. Obama offers transformative politics, the former editor of a New York political magazine told me: older people are inspired and young people are being galvanised in a way not seen since the 1960s. Hillary is merely more of the same. The yearning for a new form of politics is palpable. 'They want a clean slate,' says Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the New York writer who has known the Clintons since 1991 and is a strong Hillary supporter but whose own family is split along generational lines and who even finds herself wavering when she listens to Obama.

'Hillary is not getting across who she is,' says Pogrebin. 'She has to say: I know exactly what to do, who to mobilize to deal with any problem. She has to remind us she is on first name terms with leaders all around the world. She is ready but she can't seem to tell a story.' After eight years of Bush the country is overwhelmingly ready for change but a new factor has emerged that is threatening Hillary: call it Clinton fatigue. Many people are simply sick of the Clintons. Obama offers a chance to make history without the baggage that Hillary is seen to bring with her.

I have found widespread agreement with the views expressed in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post in its editorial endorsing Obama: Hillary and her husband', it said, 'stand for déjà vu all over again - a return to the opportunistic, scandal-scarred, morally muddled years of the almost infinitely self-indulgent Clinton co-presidency'. Not so long ago, Bill was seen as Hillary's Clinton secret weapon. Now, he is the person who can bring her down - and perhaps already has. It is not just the fear of another 'bimbo eruption' - although the Republicans are said to have six of them waiting in the wings - nor his red-faced, finger-jabbing outbursts of anger that have reminded the media of how much they hate him, nor his appearing to play the race card in the South Carolina primary.

No, the turning point for many people I've spoken to was the disclosure in the New York Times on January 31 of what has become known as the Kazakhstan deal. The article reported a questionable deal involving a $US131.3 million donation to Bill Clinton's charitable foundation from a Canadian mining magnate whom Clinton accompanied to Kazakhstan in late 2005, where they dined with the country's president, secured the rights to the nation's substantial uranium deposits in a multimillion dollar transaction that stunned the global nuclear industry, and resulted in Bill Clinton backing the Kazakhstan president to head an international organisation that monitors elections and supports democracy. The trouble was, apart from the cosy financial deal and the eye-popping fee for Bill, the endorsement went against US foreign policy that has criticised Kazakhstan's poor human rights record, a policy that has been supported by Senator Hillary Clinton.

It was not the first time that a financial deal of Bill's has been at odds with Hillary's political work. In 2004 Mr Clinton was a paid advisor to Dubai on how to handle the political uproar that followed a Dubai company trying to take over a number of American ports. Again, Senator Clinton opposed the deal and, on national security grounds, helped kill it. Not a good look when you are running for president. Billary, always problematic, but with the pluses previously outweighing the negatives, is now a liability.

JUST A FEW WEEKS ago, Hillary Clinton was the presumptive candidate. She seemed unbeatable with her huge war chest and her rolled-gold political pedigree. She had been elected twice to the US Senate, had served on important committees (including armed services) to hone her policy credentials, had hob-nobbed with seasoned members of Congress (including some politically sleazy types such as Newt Gingrich) to sharpen her political skills, had campaigned tirelessly for candidates around the country in the 2004 congressional races (including for a brash young Barack Obama who was running for the Senate) so as to extend her network and create political debts. She had the backing of the party elites, she had her husband, the magnetic former President Bill Clinton, in her corner and, just to cap it off, she was going to make history by being the first woman to have a real shot at becoming President of the United States.

Now that dream is in tatters. She needs big wins in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania to even stay in the race. She was relying on her 50/50 strategy (women over 50, people earning less than 50K) to get them but even these groups are now 'catching the fire', as going over to Obama is called. For Clinton to now win the nomination, she will need to challenge the rules preventing the credentialing of the Florida and Michigan delegations, and to win the argument that the 700 plus super delegates should chose on the basis of competency and experience, not just on voter pluralities in each state (which is what Obama, needless to say, wants). It could all end up in court even before August. But if both Obama and Clinton go forward to the Colorado convention without either having the requisite number of delegates for the nomination, and that is now mathematically virtually assured, then expect an ugly and bruising floor fight, the likes of which has not been seen since 1968 in Chicago.

Barack Obama is acting as if he has already won, no longer even engaging Hillary Clinton but directing his political fire at John McCain. History may have already passed Hillary by. She will need all the luck that's around to save her now.

Anne Summers is a former chief advisor on women's issues to former Australian Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and the author of several books, including the classic Damned Whores and God's Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia (Penguin: republished 2002, with new material) and The End of Equality: Work, Babies and Women's Choices in 21st Century Australia (Random House, 2003). This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the author, who retains all © copyright privileges in the work, and which is not to be reproduced without explicit permission.