Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been fighting the identity politics war for over a year. He’s got 90% of the African American vote; she’s got a big lead with women. Democrats seemed equally divided for a period of time (seniors with her, the youth vote with him; men with him, women with her; upscale voters with him, downscale ones with her.) The closeness of the race was in large part due to the even divisions between the constituent groups within the Democratic party. The two contenders were in essence deadlocked as demographics, rather than policy, dominated. But then things changed.
Clinton got some big breaks in the form of Snobgate and Reverend Wright. Now she has the opportunity to paint her opponent as an oddball, standing outside the political and cultural mainstream of the Democratic party. (Others have surmised that she is essentially running as a Republican in a Democratic primary, seizing the center and the right of the party with cultural issues.) There is reason to believe the ground may have shifted as voters reconsider exactly who Obama is and what he believes.
Saturday Clinton summed up her appeal: “There is a big difference between us, and the question is this: Who understands what you are going through and who will stand up for you?” In reality there are virtually no policy differences of consequence (how many votes in a presidential primary are decided by positions on the gas tax?).
But that, I think, is not what she’s driving at. She says “she never lost touch” with ordinary people. The inference is plain: her opponent has in fact lost touch (or was never in touch?) and doesn’t relate to ordinary people. Tuesday we’ll find out whether Clinton effectively played good old-fashioned wedge politics and whether the last few weeks have broken the demographic logjam.
There is good reason why Obama is frustrated with the public’s and media’s new found preoccupation with him, rather than the”issues.” (In Indiana he pleaded with the crowd to “decide that this election is bigger than flag pins and sniper fire and the comments of a former pastor.”) Even the New York Times acknowledges how effective this sort of attack can be, and suggests that Obama is becoming Dukakis II.
No wonder he abhors this stuff: it is Clinton’s only path, albeit still an uphill one, to victory. What’s more, it seems to be another painful reminder that Obama has a lot of personae but no core. (This seems right: “It’s hard not to be who you are, but it’s doubly hard to be who you’ve strived not to be.”) But a Presidental race is no place to work out your identity crisis.