Death of Reform, Birth of Reform: Clinton Democrats Face the Obama Future

Between 1968-1972, when Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton began their political journey, the Democrats were gripped by a great wave of change, propelled mainly by young people, from the bottom up. The Chicago convention protests were a mirror into this transition. In these pivotal years, young people could not vote and most delegates to the convention were chosen in backrooms by party bosses. By 1972, the so-called McGovern reforms led to the displacement of the old guard and the seating of people like Rev. Jesse Jackson in place of Mayor Daley's cronies. Most important, unlike before, rank-and-file Democrats were empowered to vote for their preferences in presidential primaries.

The Clintons were part of that early wave. Now their hopes for survival may rest on so-called super-delegates, a category of appointed party loyalists which the McGovern reforms failed to erase. The super-delegates are a throwback to the old tradition of a top-down privileged oligarchy maintaining the citadel against the grass-roots, democratically-chosen delegates. They are not necessarily the rich and powerful, though there are plenty of them. Many are like Rachel Binah, mentioned in the New York Times, who is a former radical environmentalist grass-roots California Democrat who worked her way up the party ladder and now receives phone calls from Chelsea and Hillary Clinton soliciting her vote. It's an old style insider trading system, and now threatens to eclipse the reforms achieved starting in the early Seventies. It would be an ugly, contaminated way to seal the final decision in one of the best primary contests ever conducted.

Even uglier will be the establishment claim that Michigan and Florida should count for Clinton even though the Democratic Party ruled against recognizing those state's contests.

If Clinton is chosen by the super-delegates or on the basis of the Michigan/Florida results, I would not be surprised to see hundreds of thousands of young Obama supporters silently circling the Denver convention petitioning the party to recognize their historic achievement.

It may not happen that way. But it could.

Obama is poised to win eight straight primaries in the week since Super Tuesday, with only Virginia a bit uncertain at this point. In their staggering spin, the Clinton forces are denying that these eight states matter in comparison with California and New York. This spin will be challenged when and if Obama wins Wisconsin and Hawaii on the 19th, for ten victories in a row. Coming out of Super Tuesday ahead in 14 states to Clinton's eight (some are still counting), that would mean Obama finishes February with 24 states to eight against the former First Lady and a former president popular with Democrats. The delegate totals in those 24 states are more than Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania combined, and even if the Clintons win in those three big states they still stand to lose in the 14 states remaining. That would mean approximately a 38-11 Obama sweep of the primary states by June, with one unknown at the moment.

Obama needs to fight the media perception, prompted partly by the Clintons, that "it's all over" when the big three states weigh in. That may not be any more accurate than the previous dogma that it would be all over by Super Tuesday.

Obama needs to shore up his defenses in Texas, where he is at a disadvantage. In addition to hitting hard on Iraq, his campaign needs to enlist long- time Texas populists like Jim Hightower (which hasn't happened) and win a significant share of the John Edwards vote along with the modest black vote in order to offset potentially big losses among the state's Latinos. Obama has not yet tied the failure of NAFTA (job loss for Americans, more uprooted immigrants from Mexico) to Clinton's "experience" in the White House. Nor has he spoken of the need for a new good neighbor policy towards Latin America, a whole continent that has rejected the Clinton's "free trade" policies and been ignored during the Iraq war.

In Ohio, Obama needs to win both the anti-war and anti-NAFTA voters (as in Wisconsin) to do well. Pennsylvania, three weeks later, will be shaped by the previous contest, but is a good state for the Clintons. Keep an eye on North Carolina, approaching on May 6, the home state of John Edwards.

By June, Obama needs to be ahead in the total popular vote, the total number of states won, and at least be neck-and-neck in the delegate count. He has to show a significant margin of difference over Clinton in match ups with John McCain. He will have to demand that Howard Dean and the DNC hold firm against the contaminated outcomes in Florida and Michigan.

At some point, perhaps, a pact between the candidates will be possible.

If not, the massive and peaceful pressure for transformation heading into Denver may be unique in the history of American social movements. One generation of reformers, exhausted but still fighting, will have to decide whether power is so important that they are willing to roll over young people no different than themselves three decades ago.

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