The Clinton Upset Heralds an Ugly Race

It could have been a lot of things.

It could have been Hillary’s superior get-out-the-vote team in New Hampshire.

It could have been Bill Clinton’s lingering appeal there.

It could have been Obama’s lackluster debate performance Saturday night, perhaps playing it too cool and too safe, and letting Edwards—who wins just about every debate—do the fighting for him.

It could have been that the Clintons raised enough doubts about Obama in the last 48 hours to pull the late deciders to their camp.

It could have been the famous teary incident.

It could have been women outraged by the hideous “Iron My Shirt” hecklers, a harsh reminder of the sexism still extant in our society, as Clinton herself artfully pointed out on the spot.

Maybe it was "the Bradley effect," as John Nichols has suggested. That's the phenomenon whereby white citizens tell pollsters they are going to vote for the black candidate, but when they get in the privacy of the voting booth, they can't quite bring themselves to do it.

Or it could have been the huge front page New York Times article devoted to Hillary, and the inside story that said, “Clinton Goes Face to Face with the Public as Obama Plays Not to Lose.” This story was accompanied by a photo of Obama talking to a small crowd, which must have been a hard one for the photo editor to find.

But whatever the combination of reasons, the race is now on. And it promises to get uglier.

Bill Clinton gave us that indication loud and clear on Tuesday when it still looked like Hillary might lose. Wagging his finger and looking directly into the camera with that same mean, trapped-wolverine look that he showed us when he talked about not having sexual relations with that woman Monica Lewinsky, Bill said the media had fed the public a “fairy tale” about Obama, and then he distorted Obama’s record on the Iraq War.

Hillary got in her own dig during her victory speech when she said that the young people of New Hampshire came out and “asked the hard questions” and “voted their hearts—and their minds.” (The putdown being that Obama supporters only vote their hearts.) She went out of her way to appeal to young people, talking about unscrupulous student loan companies, and for a backdrop, she had only cheering young people behind her.

In her porridge of a speech, she said she would “end the war in Iraq--the right way,” but she didn’t say what that way was, implying only that Obama would end it the wrong way.

She reprised her teary talk when she said, “Politics isn’t a game.” And she said, after being in politics for a lifetime, that in New Hampshire “I found my own voice.” She ended by talking about harnessing the “spirit and the talent and the just plain grit of this great country.”

Her speech paled in comparison with Obama’s and Edwards’s.

Edwards, as usual, talked about real people he has met along the campaign trail who have suffered at the hands of giant and callous corporations. He vowed when he is President (and that was a bit incongruous, given his poor showing in Iowa and New Hampshire) that he will take on those corporations with “backbone, will, and determination” and give voice to the voiceless.

Obama gave another stirring speech, saying he would bring people together with a new majority that will “lead this nation out of the political darkness” and “take this country in a fundamentally new direction.” Among other things, he said he’d end the war in Iraq and bring the troops home, and he didn’t qualify it.

Most pointedly, he went after Clinton in all but name when he said we’ve been “told we can’t by a chorus of cynics” who ask us “to stop for a reality check” and not give “false hope.” (Hillary had used both “reality check” and “false hope” in the Saturday night debate.) His riposte was to say that Americans have never been stopped by the cynics but have advanced with the motto “Yes, we can.” And so he talked about those who fought in the Revolutionary War with that attitude, and the slaves and the abolitionists who had that attitude, and the immigrants, and “the President who took us to the moon, and the King who took us to the mountaintop.” He concluded, “Yes we can…heal this nation and repair this world.”

He offered soaring rhetoric to Edwards’s pugnacious but on-target pep talk and Hillary’s plodding prose.

But Obama should watch his back. The Clintonites have gained on him. And it’s not going to be pretty from here on out. They play dirty, and they play for keeps.