Barack Obama dealt Hillary Clinton a devastating blow in Iowa. It wasn't just his decisive win in the caucuses. Watching the speeches after the vote told you all you needed to know about the candidates. Obama, surrounded by young supporters, gave the speech of his career--embodying optimism and inspiring his supporters with a sense of nobility and mission.
What a different face the United States would project to the world under President Obama. Young people, including young women, are inspired by what his leadership says about our culture--that we are a multi-ethnic nation that can unite around the idea of democracy, equal opportunity, and justice.
Although having a first woman President would be historic, too, you don't get that feeling from Clinton.
Hillary, grappling with her third-place finish, stood surrounded by ghosts of Clinton Administrations past--a sad and puffy-looking Bill over one shoulder, an elderly Madeleine Albright (she of the infamous assessment that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children due to U.S. sanctions were "worth it") over the other. Clinton talked about change, as usual, and she served up her usual pablum: "We are going to reclaim the future for our children."
Hillary spoke in generalities and platitudes. Her speech stood in starkest contrast to Edwards, who also had a disappointing night. He needed a win in Iowa to fuel his come-from-behind campaign and invite the cash he's lacking to pour in from unions. But while Edwards talked in stirring detail about the people whose cause he champions--like the woman who died for lack of a liver transplant, while the CEO of the health insurance company that declined to pay for her operation made an obscene salary--Hillary's message boiled down to "vote for me. I can win."
Since she lost in Iowa, it's hard to see what is left.
Edwards denounced corporate greed, and threw down the gauntlet--the power of money in our country to hijack our democracy must be stopped. It was rousing and passionate and most of all, specific.
You get the feeling Edwards will find a way to continue to fight for what he believes in. Hillary and Bill will go home and spend more time with their massive egos.
But the night belonged to Obama. "They said this day would never come," he told the cheering crowd. "You've done what the cynics said you couldn't do." He spoke to New Hampshire voters, too, about voting for a more unified country, under a President who can overcome the ugliness of the last eight years and appeal to our better nature: "If you give me the same chance Iowa did tonight, I'll be that President."
The details were not so sharp, though. There was no promise to tackle particular special interests, ala Edwards. Obama said he will expand health care "the same way I expanded it in Illinois." It's a striking claim. It reminds you how recently Obama was a mere state legislator. Even small-state governors who run for President have more reason, as executives, to claim credit for progress in their home states. Obama, in the Illinois health care initiative he refers to, actually played the role of conciliator to industry, making the Health Care Justice Act more palatable to lobbyists, according to a revealing piece in the Boston Globe.
Still, the symbolism of his candidacy, and his victory, counts for something. Insider status, establishment support, and machine-like precision lost to pure grassroots passion and a more idealistic vision of what America could be (along with some very skillful organization and some very helpful cash). It's pleasant to indulge for a moment in the feeling Obama stirs up.