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Farewell the Clintons?

By Terry Flew - posted Thursday, 15 May 2008

The Democratic Party primaries have moved from being a gripping battle between two unique aspirants for the US Presidency - the first female president or the first African-American president - to being the gift that keeps on giving for cable news networks, the Republican Party, and the army of late night talk show pundits and humorists.

All the signs are that the Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama battle will lurch on until June, with occasional dark mutterings from the Clinton camp that they may have something on Obama that could be sprung at the Denver party convention to win votes back to their side.

One commentary on the Pennsylvania Democrat primary, which Hillary Clinton won 55-45, said that it was the worst thing that could have happened for the party. This was borne out in the next two weeks in the lead up to the Indiana and North Carolina primaries.


The campaign in these two states, which between them accounted for about 20 per cent of the remaining party delegates, saw Hillary Clinton discover the white working class with a vengeance. Before various lunchtime gatherings, at the NASCAR Museum, and on the back of pick-up trucks, the liberal, Yale-educated Senator for New York discovered her inner conservative populist, offering half-cooked policy ideas such as the summer gas tax holiday, a nuclear strike on Iran if it attacked Israel, and plans to bring the OPEC oil cartel before the authority of the World Trade Organisation.

The key was not to be “elitist”. Assuming that the Pennsylvania win was due in part to Obama’s politically ill-judged comments that people turned to guns and religion because they were “bitter” with how things had turned out for them, Hillary Clinton presented herself as the one person who could save hard working white Americans from such elitism.

The term “policy wonk” was coined during the years of Bill Clinton’s presidency to capture the obsession with detail that characterised the early years of that government, but now if economists criticised the gas tax holiday as basically shifting money from road-building to oil company profits while furthering US dependence on fossil fuels, such talk was simply the stuff of the “elites”, out of touch with ordinary folk and their trials and tribulations.

At the same time, various coded references began to appear in the vocabulary of Hillary Clinton and her supporters - Hamas, Iran, Louis Farrakhan - that suggested that Barack Obama may in fact be at one with America’s critics and, worse, it enemies.

At this point, enter Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Determined to clear the name of not only himself but the black church, he launched a three-day speaking tour that actually started reasonably well - a sympathetic interview with Bill Moyers where he drew attention to his time as a US marine to suggest that one could be a critic of America and still be patriotic - but ended with a windy, bombastic lecture at the National Press Club which confirmed that suspicions about his agenda may have some foundation.

The figure of the firebrand back nationalist preacher denouncing white America for its sins, ranging from militarism and imperialism to an inability to clap to music in time, is a recognisable one that tends to have little electoral appeal beyond a geographically well-defined African-American population. Worse, he implied that, as Barack Obama’s former pastor, he could still pull strings on his former congregation member behind the scenes, even if Obama the politician had to publicly distance himself from such hot and divisive rhetoric.


Suddenly the flag of Dixie was up, and Hillary Clinton was its unlikely bearer. Appearances on the Bill O’Reilly show had FOX News conservatives musing out loud whether they had misjudged the former First Lady for the last 15 years.

Talk show host Rush Limbaugh launched “Operation Chaos” calling on his Republican-voting audience in Indiana and North Carolina to go out and vote for Hillary. Clinton supporters such as Paul Begala started saying that the Democrats can’t rely on “African-Americans and eggheads” if they want the Presidency. They need the gun-owners, the NASCAR fans, Joe Six-Pack, the bubbas - Bill Clinton knew how to get them, and so can Hillary.

And it backfired spectacularly. Obama won North Carolina, the largest state, by 56-42 per cent, and Hilary Clinton squeaked in 51-49 in predominantly white, rural and Republican Indiana. Indeed, Clinton was forced to declare herself the winner in Indiana in advance of the result being finalised, due to a bizarre hold up in vote reporting in Lake County in the state’s north, a strong Obama-voting area that sits up against Chicago and has a large African-American population (For trivia buffs, its central city is Gary, Indiana, the birthplace of Michael Jackson).

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About the Author

Terry Flew is Professor of Media and Communications at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. He is the author of Understanding Global Media (Palgrave 2007) and New Media: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008). From 2006 to 2009, he has headed a project into citizen journalism in Australia through the Australian Research Council’s Linkage-Projects program, and The National Forum (publishers of On Line Opinion) have been participants in that project.

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