In the Arena

What Happened in Nevada?

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In the beginning, Hillary Clinton told no stories. She was all policy, all the time. And, as I traveled about Nevada with her on Friday, her stump speech was still a hearty meal of mind-numbing programs and proposals–but it was far more compelling now, leavened, as it has been, increasingly, since Iowa, with stories about actual human beings trying to make it in an increasingly difficult economy.

In Elko, a town next door to nothing, she joked easily with the crowd, “I said at the beginning of the campaign, before this is over, I gotta get to Elko…I gotta get to Elko…I gotta get to Elko.” But then she moved into a litany of stories–the man in Reno who had paid for his health insurance all his life, then was diagnosed with prostate cancer and the insurance company bailed on him…the woman in Vegas who had tried to pay off some of the principle of her mortgage in advance, and found that because of an obscure clause in her contract, her prepayment triggered a higher interest rate. And on and on…

Some of the stories were greeted with gasps and groans. But by the time she started in on her policy plans, the crowd–all her crowds that day–were more than ready to listen patiently to what her proposed solutions were. This was nutrition that Barack Obama does not routinely provide in his speeches–and it is a safe bet, as Jay Carney surmised earlier, that Clinton’s meat-and-potatoes style of campaign is better suited than Barack Obama’s sweet inspiration for difficult economic times.

But most people in Nevada didn’t get to hear Clinton speak. The political process exploded upon them over the course of a week, filled with the promise of jackpot horns and whistles, but without proper instructions as to where and how to play the game. As I write this, the Obama campaign is contesting the 51-45% Clinton victory, claiming that it won the majority of delegates. And who knows, in a year as confusing as this, and in a process as disgracefully undemocratic as caucuses are–yes, that means you, too, Iowa–the Obama folks may even be right.

ADD: But Clinton majority support from caucus goers will get the headlines tomorrow and there may be other explanations for Clinton’s victory. The Teachers Union, which supported Clinton, may be better organized than the Culinary Workers. Certainly, the Teachers have a national reputation for working extra hard on election day. Caucuses, as we’ve learned, are all about organization–and organization is difficult to predict in advance.

But there’s another possible explanation that will be whispered about, and is really worrisome: Latinos, who voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, simply do not want to have a black man as President. The emnity between blacks and Latinos has long been a submerged story, politically incorrect to discuss, especially among Democrats. But, according to CNN, Latinos might have voted as much as 3-1 for Clinton in Nevada.

There will be those who say that the Clintons intentionally brought this on–with their sleazy horde of surrogates making race references over the past few weeks–but I’m not convinced of that. I am, however, afraid that all this race talk has made Barack Obama’s candidacy -all about race, when it was supposed to be the opposite. I’m also afraid that an Obama victory in South Carolina, with its huge African-American vote, will be discounted as a “race” win.

This sort of identity politics has long been an enormous problem for Democrats, which I think may have been in the back of Barack Obama’s mind when he called the Republicans the “party of ideas.” Those who have bought into that story-line have usually contrasted the GOP’s big market freedom, military strength and traditional values ideas agains the Democrats’ tendency to splinter into sub-groups–or, at best, focus on specific programs rather than broader themes. (I’ll have more to say about this phenomenon in my print colemn this week.) It is a disastrous irony that Obama’s candidacy, which refused to play the identity game, may now be trapped in it,

It was a mere 17 days ago that I celebrated the Iowa results as a triumph of Martin Luther King’s dream. We have a long way to go in this race, and my initial judgment may still be proven correct. Or it may well be that the obvious explanation is the correct one: Clinton’s more substantive message is more attractive in difficult economic times. But when Barack Obama rises to speak in Martin Luther King’s Ebeneezer Baptist Church this morning, I suspect that more than a few in that congregation, and in the Democratic Party, will be wondering if Dr. King’s dream is–on this day at least–as elusive as it ever was.