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Politics of Unity?

For more than a year the two leading Democratic candidates for President, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, have chided President Bush for being a “divider instead of a uniter.” The President is, it is said, a “polarizing” figure. Clinton and Obama promise to bring an end to all that. Obama in particular has made the cornerstone of his campaign a kind of tonal argument. He will, he has said, turn the page on the bitterness of the past and transcend the usual partisan sniping. He seems to be arguing that by the force and charisma of his personality he will, like Isaiah the prophet, bring us together so we can reason together.

Before bringing his healing balm to the country, however, we’ll see if Senator Obama can bring it to the Democratic Party.
The emerging battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is getting very personal very fast – with the toxic issue of race now being added to the mix in the last few days. Ugly charges and counter-charges are being made at an almost hourly rate. By the time this competition is done, there may be a lot of scorched earth left in its aftermath.

If Obama had won in New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign would have been badly, and perhaps mortally, wounded, and the attacks we are now seeing would look desperate and graceless. But having prevailed in New Hampshire, Mrs. Clinton re-set the dynamics of the race. And so Senator Obama will now be on the receiving end of a ferocious attack machine, one that over the years has left its critics and opponents shattered and their reputations shredded. Ken Starr, it’s worth recalling, was a well-respected figure before he began his investigation into the Clinton scandals; when he was done, he was portrayed by the Clinton team as a sex-obsessed independent counsel, “Captain Ahab,” a “spineless, gutless weasel” who was the leader of an “inquisition.”

For a preview of things to come, see this, from Ryan Lizza’s article in The New Yorker:

On the morning after Clinton’s victory [in New Hampshire], I talked to Sergio Bendixen, one of her pollsters, who specializes in the Hispanic vote. “In all honesty, the Hispanic vote is extremely important to the Clinton campaign, and the polls have shown—and today is not a great day to cite polls—that even though she was slipping with women in Iowa and blacks in South Carolina, she was not slipping with Hispanics,” he said. “The fire wall doesn’t apply now, because she is in good shape, but before last night the Hispanic vote was going to be the most important part of her fire wall on February 5th.” The implications of that strategy are not necessarily uplifting. When I asked Bendixen about the source of Clinton’s strength in the Hispanic community, he mentioned her support for health care, and Hispanic voters’ affinity for the Clinton era. “It’s one group where going back to the past really works,” he said. “All you need to say in focus groups is ‘Let’s go back to the nineties.’ ” But he was also frank about the fact that the Clintons, long beloved in the black community, are now dependent on a less edifying political dynamic: “The Hispanic voter—and I want to say this very carefully—has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.”

It’ll be interesting to see how Obama’s “politics of hope” responds to those who have perfected the Politics of Personal Destruction. Will he be able to respond persuasively and aggressively without getting himself filthy in the process? Will he be able to turn the chapter on the divisive politics of the past–or will he merely add to what we have seen before?

Regardless of the results, after this nomination process it may be a lot harder for either Clinton or Obama to put forward the argument that they are figures who can bring America together, especially if they succeed in driving various constituencies within the Democratic Party apart. The politics of unity aren’t, apparently, as easy as people think.


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