Politics » Politics Feature

Mississippi Mud

The Democratic presidential candidates struggle on to the south of us.



"I don't know how somebody who's in second place gets off offering the vice presidency to somebody who's in first place," said Barack Obama to one of his typically Woodstockian throngs at Jackson State University Monday night. It was an elaboration of what he'd said earlier to a crowd in Columbus on a day of campaigning in Mississippi, a new mantra for his campaign that already had several and a crowd-pleaser.

It was Obama's version of what General Anthony McAuliffe, commander of encircled airborne troops at Bastogne, had said to a German military delegation seeking his surrender at the height of the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. "Nuts!" McAuliffe had responded — a brush-off that expressed his contempt both for the suggestion and for the logic behind it.

Candidate Obama's thinking was likewise. In Mississippi, as at that beleaguered outpost in Belgium, it must have seemed obvious that immediate help was on the way. Just as McAuliffe had reason to believe that General George S. Patton's tanks would shortly be relieving his encircled troops, so did the Illinois senator have reasonable expectations of winning the Mississippi primary on the basis of the state's large African-American voting population.

And, beyond that, Obama, like General McAuliffe before him, saw an endgame that inexorably favored him, whatever his adversary's short-term successes might seem to be. Yes, New York senator Hillary Clinton might have achieved breakthroughs in Texas and Ohio, but, as numerous analyses by the established political punditry have pointed out, those triumphs had barely dented Obama's lead in delegates. Nor would another win next month in Pennsylvania be likely to do so.

"Somebody's trying to hoodwink you," the Illinois senator told the crowd in Jackson, and maybe that was the explanation for Clinton's dangling of a vice-presidential offer, made three days earlier to a crowd in Canton. Or maybe it was simple chutzpah or — more favorably to Clinton, metaphor-wise — a shrewd evocation of the underdog ethos: David vs. Goliath. Or, closer to home, maybe she, like Mississippi's own Eli Manning, had begun to spark enough lightning to kindle a miracle fourth-quarter finish that could put her over, after all.

Well, there are metaphors, and there is realpolitik, as practiced by the likes of, say, Karl Rove, the all-too-literal-minded steward of George W. Bush's political fortunes during his rise to — and maintenance of — power.

And there was Rove, writing in The Wall Street Journal last week. Taking note of Clinton's wins in Texas and Ohio, as well as the long-term odds favoring Obama, the man whom Bush had famously nicknamed "Turdblossom" got down to some bottom-line calculations, linking the fortunes and strategies of the New York Democrat to those of Arizona senator John McCain, the Republican who has already secured a lock on his party's presidential nomination.

"So what must Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton do, especially in the seven weeks before Pennsylvania?" asked Rove rhetorically. That got answered in his next paragraph: "Both need to focus on Mr. Obama's biggest weaknesses." And in the next: "Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton also need to continue highlighting Mr. Obama's lack of experience."

No sooner said than done. On Thursday of last week, the very same day that Rove's Journal piece appeared and on the eve of her appearances in Mississippi, Clinton had this to say at a widely noted press conference in Washington:

"I think that since we now know Senator McCain will be the nominee for the Republican Party, national security will be front and center in this election. We all know that. And I think it's imperative that each of us be able to demonstrate we can cross the commander-in-chief threshold. I believe that I've done that. Certainly, Senator McCain has done that and you'll have to ask Senator Obama with respect to his candidacy."

And, as they say on those late-night TV offers, Wow, that's not all! Clinton went on. After calling McCain "a distinguished man with a great history of service to our country," she presumed to say (on what basis she did not fully spell out) that she, like the former naval aviator and Vietnam War POW, had crossed the aforesaid commander-in-chief threshold.

She continued: "There are certain critical issues that voters always look to in a general election. National security experience [and] the qualifications to be commander-in-chief are front and center. They always have been. They always will be. I think you'll be able to imagine many things Senator McCain will be able to say. He's never been the president, but he will put forth his lifetime of experience. I will put forth my lifetime of experience. Senator Obama will put forth a speech he made in 2002."

Ouch! Speaking of vice-presidential possibilities, a visitor from Mars could be excused for thinking that Clinton might herself be bucking for a place on the ticket with McCain, ready for a patriotic crusade against some upstart named Obama.

Give her this. Hillary Clinton is nothing if not tenacious. And, consistent with the warriorlike rhetoric of her D.C. press conference, she is now — effectively and, it would seem, gladly — carrying the brunt of her own battle. Husband Bill, chastened by blowback from the media (and, very likely, from voters) after his own earlier harsh criticism of Obama, seems to have settled into the role of helpful spouse on the stump.

Heeding the U.S. Weather Service's urgent warnings — all too believable, given the amount of snow and sleet that was already coming down so freakishly and furiously on Friday afternoon — I turned back from a planned jaunt down to Tupelo for an appearance by the ex-president. The concept of "'Elvis' comes to Tupelo" — "Elvis" being President Clinton's Secret Service code name — was a powerful incentive, but, alas, this courier did get stayed, though according to subsequent press reports, a crowd estimated at between 1,000 and 3,000 ended up braving the bad weather.

Those same press reports seemed unanimous and even explicit that Mr. Clinton said or did nothing out of the ordinary — certainly nothing contentious. Given that he was in the real Elvis birthplace, he paid the expected homage to the rock icon. And, of course, he had fulsome praise for his wife. The representative quote that emerged, however, was this one, from a traveling reporter for the New York Daily News:

"I have loved this election because I didn't have to be against anybody."

And there was daughter Chelsea Clinton, who made the round of college campuses in Mississippi, eschewing controversy but, according to what I saw on TV, sounding the same talking points, more or less, as her mother. Having met Miss Clinton in Memphis back in January, I had found her to be a remarkably shy individual but poised enough to cancel out the downside of that.

As for Chelsea's DNA ... well, visually she is an almost perfect blend of her mother and father. But once she opens her mouth, her accents and inflections, even her all-too-sincere way of enunciating broad slogans, pre-shaped for ready and repeatable delivery, are all Hillary. And there's not much rascal in her, either way.

"Elvis": It has to be said that if his facsimile exists in this election year, it is Obama who is closest to being a clone, who can transmit real energy to a crowd and extract energy from it. People — and not just his critics — talk about the fact that Obama's speech is more or less the same from stump to stump and from state to state, and, for better and for worse, that is true.

Just as, it should be said, Elvis himself, in each of the phases of his career, did more or less the same act from stage to stage. But Obama has been made sensitive to the charge. And, at Jackson State, he had a whole laundry list of issues, à la Clinton: higher teachers' salaries, tuition credits, middle-class tax breaks, Peace Corps-like service in return for scholarships, inflation-pegged minimum-wage increases, fuel-efficiency standards ...

Even: "As commander in chief, I will do everything that is required to make sure that nobody does America harm."

But, as always, he was at his best ringing changes on his simple themes of "change" and "hope," relating the latter word to the sacrifices and struggles of Mississippians to gain civil rights:

"You know about hope right here in Mississippi. Imagining and then fighting for it, working for what has been before, that's what hope is."

As for change, and his opponent's own claims to represent it, he lumped together everything from NAFTA to her support for the 2002 war resolution to the recent "kitchen sink" strategy aimed at him and said, "That's not change, we're accustomed to that. That's what got us into the hole we've got now."

And there was no doubting the power of his close:

"This is our moment, this is our time. ... And, if you will stand with me ... I promise you we will not just win Mississippi, we will win this whole nation, and we will win this general election, you and I together, we will change this country, and we will change the world."

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