Monday, February 11, 2008

So goes Maine in the Democratic drama

Once upon a time - actually, it was 168 years ago - the triumphant Whig party came up with the slogan, "As Maine goes, so goes the nation." The slogan somehow endured, despite the fact that, in presidential elections over the next century, Maine and the nation frequently chose differently.

But yesterday, at least, Maine did act as a barometer of sorts. Democratic caucus-goers, braving bad weather, turned out in heavy numbers to give Barack Obama an unexpected landslide victory - thereby reflecting much of the current national grassroots unease about Hillary Clinton, and demonstrating that Hillary's woes can't simply be blamed on her now-departed campaign manager.

Maine was a state where Hillary figured to do well, and thus avoid the quite real possibility of going zero-for-February. Maine's demographics were assumed to be in her comfort zone: a large pool of older, white blue-collar voters who earn less than $50,000 a year. She had scored victories in other New England states, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. She was endorsed by Maine's governor. She campaigned in Maine on Saturday, as did Bill and Chelsea.

Yet she was hammered in Maine yesterday, 59 percent to 40 percent - completing a weekend of defeats (Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington State, Virgin Islands), and losing her thin lead in the national delegate count. So what happened?

Last night I received an email from an old friend who participated in the Maine caucuses. Like so many other Democrats, she has been angsting about the two candidates, both of whom she likes. However, her decision - and those of her fellow caucus-goers - spotlights the problems that continue to imperil Hillary's candidacy. Key excerpts:

"People realize that both candidates have qualities that are appealing, and yet (there is) resistance towards Hillary...She is from the status quo, she has too much 'Billy baggage,' she voted for the war...Those seem to be the issues preventing people here from supporting her. On the other hand, Obama is appealing because he seeks to unite the country and is not a divisive public figure. He voted against the war from day one...I know she is really intelligent, she has a very good plan for universal health care, and has done much good work in her lifetime...but still, I do not especially trust her. She is too caught up in the old politics game, I feel...Of course, it would be great to have a woman in top leadership for a change. (But) Obama I found to be really inspiring and sincere, and the work he has done so far is admirable. He is very idealistic, I do not believe, as some do, that he is just a showman...I feel that Obama speaks to a new time...It is all about uniting us as a national community, which is something Americans are longing for."

It will be interesting to see how Maine's 10 superdelegates react to the Maine results. As you know by now, this Democratic race may ultimately hinge on the behavior of the 796 elected officials, party big shots, elder statesmen who have "super" status and can vote as unpledged delegates for whomever they choose, irrespective of the results in their own states.

Will Maine's superdelegates think it best to honor the decisive verdict of the caucus-goers? Or will they opt to exercise their own independent judgment, weighing other factors such as past loyalties to the candidates (Hillary has an edge) and autumn electability (the polls say Obama has an edge)? Such are the stakes in Maine, and for superdelegates nationwide. (By the way, these superdelegates may face quite a dilemma. If they opt to reflect the will of the people, they'll be forefeiting their independence, which is the big reason why the national party created the supers a quarter century ago; yet if they hew to their independence, they risk being assailed as backroom dealers by the people who would feel their votes have been ignored.)

And speaking of autumn electability, it's worth noting that both candidates in recent days have talking up their November bona fides - to the voters (Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC stage primaries tomorrow), as well as to the superdelegates. Hillary says she's tougher and better-tested to battle the GOP message machine, whereas Obama says he's sufficiently tough already, thanks to his battles with the Clinton message machine.

Perhaps Obama is right, but his fans might want to think hard about whether he would effectively refute the official Republican attack line that is already beginning to take shape: that he is an "inexperienced" "liberal" who can't match John McCain's commander-in-chief credentials. And that's just the polite stuff, as opposed to whatever gets whispered under the radar. Long before Obama even gets a chance to forge "a national community," he may need to convince late-voting Democrats (and especially the superdelegates) that he has the intestinal fortitude to blow the Swift Boats out of the water.