How Barack Obama came to the verge of the Democratic party presidential nomination will be the subject of books, articles, theses, and dissertations for years. What I know is this much: Hillary Clinton's vote on the Iraq war exposed an opening on her left. Democrats opposed to the war -- in other words, just about all Democrats except for the U.S. Senator from Connecticut -- were left to ponder the rationale behind the decision of the woman who was not only the early front runner for the party's presidential nomination, she was virtually the assumed nominee.
In her speech to the Senate explaining her vote, Clinton walked a line between support for unilateral intervention and for seeking full U.N. approval. She carefully said that she was not voting for "any new doctrine of pre-emption, or for uni-lateralism, or for the arrogance of American power or purpose -- all of which carry grave dangers for our nation, for the rule of international law and for the peace and security of people throughout the world." (Truer words were never spoken.) But the money quote, the one that raised suspicions about her judgment and motives came earlier in the speech:
"I will take the President at his word that he will try hard to pass a UN resolution and will seek to avoid war..."
This flew in the face of grass-roots assumptions about Bush. How could anyone trust a man who would steal a presidential election? How could anyone trust a man who ran as a uniter and already governed as a divider? And biggest of all, how could anyone trust the word of a man that he wanted to avoid war when he was clearly rushing headlong toward it? And if Clinton actually didn't trust Bush, what kind of person would vote for war as an expedient means of covering her right flank?
All of this would have been moot had the occupation gone well. Instead, the predictions of anti-war politicians and citizens came true with a vengeance. Clinton stood by her vote, wondering on Larry King Live, wondering how the administration could "have been so poorly prepared for the aftermath" of the invasion. To her would-be constituency, this missed the point, since the inability of the Bush Administration or anyone else to win the peace in Iraq was a fundamental reason for opposing the war in the first place. How, we wondered, could a Democratic U.S. Senator even be wondering about what had been obvious all along? To all appearances, Clinton had believed that the war and occupation would be a success, a stance that now achieved the seemingly impossible combination of naivete and cynicism.
The opening for an alternative widened. What no one expected was that a freshman Senator from Illinois would fill it, or that his opportunity would be the result of a wildly successful book tour. Barack Obama offered two things that Hillary Clinton did not: He opposed the war from the onset and he offered an antidote to the expediency that many of us felt underlay Clinton's vote. Thus, he could plausibly lay claim to correct judgment about the war and to an aversion to the cynical political calculus that helped produce the war. (That she resolutely avoided discussion of her vote led more and more Democrats to conclude that she had in fact made a vote she believed was politically smart.)
Did this preordain an Obama victory? We tend to forget that Clinton handily led all comers on the eve of the primary season. Barack Obama took maximum advantage of the opening Clinton gave him with a superior campaign strategy that involved grass-roots organizing and fundraising and a consistent message of changing the way things were done. Clinton's campaign suddenly seemed to be without a rationale: What she and her supporters anticipated as a triumphal coronation march had suddenly become a referendum on the way on the S.O.P. of the Washington establishment she claimed to have mastered.
Clinton ran on a strategy that was to culminate in victory on Super Tueday. Obama -- ironically, as it turned out -- saw the campaign as a drawn out affair in which he would relentlessly bring his superior 50-state organization to bear. When Super Tuesday proved inconclusive, he was able to win big in states that Clinton considered irrelevant to the campaign and had not bothered to organze. By the time she recovered and sharpened the rationale for her candidacy, Obama had built a delegate lead that she could not cut into with relatively narrow victories in the states where the demographics favored her. Indeed, a similar dynamic played itself out over and over: In Clinton states, Obama cut into a big lead to finish closer than expected, whereas she made no headway in Obama states.
In the end, a superior candidate with a superior strategy successfully appealed to a party that wants to turn the page. While Clinton commands an important constituency, there's no reason to think that Obama can't pull it together under his campaign in the general election. He will have more money than John McCain. It's already clear that he is as gifted an organizer as he is an orator. He will be the candidate of change in a country tired of a failed war, disgusted by the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, and increasingly frightened of a deteriorating economy and the increasing lack of access to health care. So far, all his opponent will say is that Bush has the right ideas, he's just put them into action (or inaction) incompetently -- in other, McCain promises more of the same with better results.
The big question -- and it is a big one - is whether the country will vote for an African-American president even in the face of a failed administration. In that sense, the coming campaign will be a referendum on whether we as a nation truly believe what we say: That all men are created equal. It is time, in Martin Luther King's unforgettable words, for this country to live out the true meaning of its creed.