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Clinton-Obama Race Proved an Epic, Historic Political Journey

June 3, 2008 at 6:15 PM EST
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After months of voting, the history-making nominating battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is reaching its long-awaited conclusion. A panel of political reporters, analysts and historians looks back on the race and what it may mean for the general election.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The Democrats began their nominating process exactly five months ago today on a cold night in Iowa. Now, with the final votes being tallied, we take a look back at the long primary season, assess how it’s ending, and what’s next for both Clinton and Obama, with presidential historian Michael Beschloss; Clarence Page, columnist for the Chicago Tribune; Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal’s political daily; and Chris Cillizza of WashingtonPost.com.

Well, it’s a warm night in June. And the Associated Press, as you just heard, is reporting that it’s over.

Clarence, you know, even though South Dakota and Montana results have yet to come in, but enough delegates have now declared themselves publicly or privately to be for Barack Obama, the first African-American to be the nominee of a major political party. Historic moment. What’s the significance?

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: That’s right. It is, indeed. And while I’m guarded about the projections, because we’ve had so many surprises this season, nevertheless, this is a historic moment, no matter what happens from here on out, nobody can take this away from Barack Obama.

He has achieved something many people thought America was not ready for, but it has happened. And it bodes well for his future.

We also had, as fate would have it, the first primary in which we had a truly viable female candidate, as well. And maybe it was the journalistic stars that decided we would have them both in the same primary. And that itself has caused tension within a party that has given such a premium to diversity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amy, how much time have we really had to sit back and think about just how historic this is?

AMY WALTER, Editor-in-Chief, The Hotline: Not much. We haven’t had time to do much of any reflecting. And I think that’s part of what’s happening today, is this rush to get this nomination sewn up to say he is absolutely, positively the winner, and not waiting just for a few more hours to calculate that, I think suggests that this is — folks are ready to get to that place, maybe where there can be some reflection.

I mean, obviously there’s been a great deal of talk, a great deal of writing about this. The real question is, is there really, as seems to be construed, this idea that there’s disunity now in the party because of the fact that you have these two historic firsts bumping up against each other and one person is going to have to lose?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And disunity or not, Michael, there is history here.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Sure, there is. You know, not only what Clarence mentioned, obviously, the first African-American as the nominee of a major party, but also you have to go back to even someone like Wendell Willkie in 1940. And even that comparison doesn’t do it justice. Willkie was a CEO in New York City, unknown.

Four years ago tonight, Barack Obama was someone — we three have all lived in Chicago. I think we may have known about him from Illinois politics, but most Americans had never heard of him. Even just four years ago, he was a state legislator. Now he’s poised to very possibly be the next president. It can’t get much more historic than that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s still astonishing on many levels.

Both sides deserve credit, blame

Clarence Page
The Chicago Tribune
Well, Barack Obama went out and rallied young folks, college kids, like nobody since Gene McCarthy, I would say, back in '68. And all those elements came together and the rules, absolutely right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Chris, was this a race that Barack Obama won or a race that Hillary Clinton lost?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, The Washington Post: Well, you know, Judy, I think any time you see an upset like this -- and I think Michael puts it in the exact right respective. And this is an upset of historic proportions. I think you can debate the greatest political upset ever or not, probably not, but it's in the conversation.

Any time you have an upset like that, I think things are done right by the candidate who wins and wrong by the candidate who loses. I think what we'll see in the next few days is a political obituary of Senator Clinton's campaign that will focus on the things she did wrong, ceding the caucuses to Barack Obama, losing 11 straight contests from February 6th to March 3rd.

But I think what that does is it does not give enough credit where it is due: to Barack Obama and the kind of campaign he ran.

Yes, he was in the right moment. Yes, he was the man for that moment. But he ran a picture-perfect campaign that took advantage of the rules as they were laid out, built himself a delegate lead that was insurmountable by Senator Clinton. He deserves a huge amount of credit here.

I believe that Barack Obama won this race. Did Hillary Clinton do things that made it easier for Barack Obama to win? Yes, but he still went and took it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Clarence, what about this question of how much of this was his achievement and how much of it was -- she was the frontrunner not so long ago.

CLARENCE PAGE: This was his achievement. You know, we were talking earlier about how Congressman Bobby Rush beat Barack Obama back in 2000, but Obama learned a lot from that race.

And in coming up through the Senate and coming into this race, he knew how to organize grassroots, folks out there in Iowa. I think Jimmy Carter made the Iowa caucuses important, and Barack Obama has made that grassroots organizing, Internet fundraising...

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That's what he did for a living in Chicago. He was a community organizer.

CLARENCE PAGE: Absolutely. And Internet fundraising and going out after folks that the parties had ignored, like young people, who they'd kissed off, saying, "Well, they don't show up. They don't vote." Well, Barack Obama went out and rallied young folks, college kids, like nobody since Gene McCarthy, I would say, back in '68.

And all those elements came together and the rules, absolutely right. The rules, as Hillary Clinton says, if they had Republican Party rules, winner-take-all, she would have had it back around Super Tuesday. But they don't. She's not a Republican; she's a Democrat. And Barack Obama knew the rules.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amy, what did the Obama people know that nobody else knew?

AMY WALTER: Well, I think that everybody here has pointed that out, which is you play by the rules that are laid out in front of you. Now, we can make the argument that maybe he didn't have any other choice, right? Clinton was the established candidate.

Of course he had to go to the Internet to raise money. Of course he had to rely on his grassroots organizing. He didn't have the structural elements that Hillary Clinton had. He didn't have the big donors, so of course he had to go to those.

But he did it very well. And I think that's very important. I think it's also important to recognize, though, too, that Hillary Clinton's loss is not necessarily a repudiation of Hillary Clinton or of her message.

Remember, she'll come out of this with 48 percent of the popular vote, whatever we want to -- or however we're going to calculate this. And she will have won 21 contests.

So Obama's victory is saying a lot about the strategic victory, rather than it being a message victory. Remember, on the issues, these are two candidates who are very, very similar.

Close, but final

Michael Beschloss
Presidential Historian
There's a winner and a loser. And she is not the winner in this one, unfortunately for her. But, you know, we've heard so much from her about how she has benefited from her experience. I think, in this process, she was a victim of her experience.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Michael, the fact that she is so close, does that take something away? I mean, somebody has pointed out, this is practically a tie election here.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sorry, but there's a winner and a loser. And she is not the winner in this one, unfortunately for her.

But, you know, we've heard so much from her about how she has benefited from her experience. I think, in this process, she was a victim of her experience.

Her husband, Bill Clinton, in 1996, people don't remember, he had presided over the loss of both houses of Congress. There were some Democrats who were talking about challenging him for re-election. The way that Clinton made sure that didn't happen was he raised a huge amount of money, organized, made it so scary that no one dared to run.

He told Al Gore to do the same thing in 2000. And together, they ran out of the race almost every conceivable Democrat who might have run against Al Gore, except for Bill Bradley.

So what Hillary Clinton was doing this year was she was referring to what she knew in her own experience, which was '96 and 2000: raise a lot of money, scare everyone by saying, "You can't compete with my $100 million, and I'm famous, I know the rules, I know all these people all over the country."

And it didn't work, because Barack Obama ran against her. She wasn't able to lock it up early. She had no back-up plan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Chris Cillizza, and yet there is a sort of a ragged feeling to the end of this. Correct me if you're not sensing that. I mean, this morning, we heard Hillary Clinton was going to acknowledge tonight that he was over the top in delegates. And later they rushed out and said, "No, no, no," her campaign, "she's not going to do that."

Does that say anything about this contest?

CHRIS CILLIZZA: Well, Judy, two things. First of all, I think any time a candidate as big a presence and with as big a political organization as Senator Clinton decides to call it quits -- and I think she's going to do that, whether it's tonight or tomorrow or the next day -- it's going to be a little bit ragged.

There are a lot of people talking to a lot of reporters. There's information; there's half-truths; there's misinformation out there.

But I would say, in a broader context, if you look at the recent votes -- Kentucky, West Virginia, Puerto Rico, throw in Oregon in there with Barack Obama won, he's likely to win Montana, I hear South Dakota could well be close -- he's not ending on that full momentum that he might have ended on if she had dropped out a little bit earlier.

You know, she has now won a fair number of the contests since March 4th. It's not going to change the math. As I said, the math was determinative after he won those 11 straight contests, but he is not finishing it necessarily in the way he would like.

It may wound up getting washed out in the laundry, however, because when he stands up and says, "I'm the formal nominee of the party," I'm not sure anyone will remember what's come before it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does the fact, Clarence, that Senator Clinton is the one who's done so well in some of these late primaries, even when the voters knew he was the one who was headed toward the nomination...

CLARENCE PAGE: That's right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... does that say something about how strong he is as a nominee of the party?

CLARENCE PAGE: It does, but it also says something about the nature of an insurgency campaign. She was the establishment candidate. She is. She knows the county chairmen, the state infrastructure, Governor Rendell, the mayors, the people who count.

He's still the insurgent. He's got those grassroots offices out there, so he does real well in caucuses, much tougher for him in a state that's not a caucus state, but a primary state, where you need to have that big infrastructure.

And because she kept fighting, he never got a chance to show his stuff as far as sweeping through a state. He had to fight for every state. And his resources toward the end, he just decided -- he just made the triage call not to go to West Virginia more than three times, I think it was, and while Hillary Clinton was there constantly, and Kentucky, and some other states.

Democrats divided

Amy Walter
The Hotline
There aren't fundamental ideological differences between those two candidates, where you're asking the supporters of the loser to go and vote for somebody that on so many issues they disagree with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All this brings us back, Amy, to that point you made earlier about just how divided the party -- how divided is the Democratic Party or Democratic voters, is probably a better way to ask it?

AMY WALTER: Well, I think we're going to find out as we go through these next few weeks here. And there are a couple things to think about.

First is, historically, there's nothing new about the fact that, in a divided primary, a contentious primary, that the supporters of one candidate, the losing candidate, aren't necessarily in the middle of that fight excited about voting for the person.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It takes a while, yes.

AMY WALTER: It takes a while for those feelings to go away, and especially how emotionally driven so much of this campaign has been.

But let's remember two things. The first is, as I said, there aren't fundamental ideological differences between those two candidates, where you're asking the supporters of the loser to go and vote for somebody that on so many issues they disagree with. So that's number one.

The second is, this may be ugly, we can talk about what happened, what didn't happen, Bill Clinton, et cetera, but the fact of the matter is we've all seen primaries that were a whole lot uglier than this, where people were -- you know, they hate puppies, and they don't like old people...

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Never will, never...

AMY WALTER: ... right, they've never, they would throw their mom under a bus.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But we all have short memories.

AMY WALTER: Of course. That didn't happen here.

So the question now, I think, the biggest thing that both of these candidates can do now is the sense of the tone that they're setting tonight in these speeches, what they're telling Democratic voters about, as we were all talking about, the history making here, the chance to take the White House back, the chance to defeat John McCain. Those are the things they should be focusing on.

If voters do, instead, get the message from either one of them that this thing is still not over, we still don't trust this other person, that may take longer. And they don't have a whole lot of time to get things focused and organized on John McCain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, how often in the past, and how long has it been since we had a contest that ended up as close as this one has?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: 1976, Reagan and Ford came down to the convention, divided the Republican Party right down the middle, but they were able to resolve that dispute, because Reagan, at least at the time of the convention, said, "I'm going to support Ford."

Plus, Amy makes a great point, which is that difference was ideological. Ford was the centrist; Reagan was a conservative.

In a way, it's going to be tougher for Obama, I think, because ideological differences you can basically find compromises that will bring everyone into a tent. I can't think of a campaign in the last 50 years when you've seen a party divided so precisely demographically, you know, seniors and women and blue-collar for Hillary. And on the other side, the groups that Obama has gotten, youth and African-Americans and other groups.

And in a way, it's going to take even more skill to bring everyone back onto the reservation.

Obama enters the general election

Chris Cillizza
The Washington Post
If Senator Clinton goes out and actively campaigns for Barack Obama, especially in places like Ohio, Michigan and Florida, I think she can really help him there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Chris, as Barack Obama -- and we believe that he will sometime tonight -- go over that number, in terms of declared super-delegates and elected delegates, as he goes into this contest with John McCain, what does he carry with him, in terms of baggage and in terms of a plus, an advantage?

CHRIS CILLIZZA: Well, Judy, I think the pluses are pretty obvious: a massive fundraising organization. I don't think any of us would have thought that Hillary Clinton would be running out of money while Barack Obama was just basically printing it in the back of his campaign at this point.

Also, a huge organization. You know, I had a Democrat tell me today, they said, just take a state like Georgia. Barack Obama doesn't necessarily need to spend any money down there. He's got an intact, activist, volunteer group who can set up an organization for him in the state, not that he'll win it, but he can play there for a lot less money, keep himself in the game.

So I think the pluses are obvious. The negatives: He has had trouble convincing white, working-class voters to vote for him, Hispanic voters.

So the primary leaves him divided, but I think a lot of that depends on what Senator Clinton does. If Senator Clinton goes out and actively campaigns for Barack Obama, especially in places like Ohio, Michigan and Florida, I think she can really help him there, because, as Amy said, these voters who are with Senator Clinton have a lot more in common ideologically and values-wise with Senator Obama than they do with Senator McCain. And to remind them of that is a very powerful message.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, fasten your seatbelts. This is going to be one we're all -- we're not going to want to take our eyes off of this one. Chris Cillizza, thank you so much, joining us from the Washington Post. Clarence Page, Michael Beschloss, Amy Walter, thank you all. Great to have you.