What is with Chris Matthews? I’ve just spent most of the night watching the MSNBC coverage of the Iowa caucuses and Matthews would not get off of his anti-Hillary diatribes. He’s been doing it on his show for a long time – spending weeks criticizing her for such things as clapping – clapping! – at her rallies. When it was clear Obama would come out on top tonight, he imagined the Clinton brain trust scheming to make dramatic conversation-changing news in her concession speech (she didn’t). He scoffed at the crowd gathering for her speech in front of the cameras. Why, those people weren’t there a half-hour ago! They are plants of the campaign, not real Iowans! That cynical Clinton stagecraft. Why, no one else does that, right? He made a big deal out of the fact that two-thirds of the caucus attenders rejected her. Well, two-thirds of them also rejected Obama and Edwards (as pointed out by Rachel Maddow of Air America on Matthews’ panel, after I thought of it) – what’s his point? Matthews fevered harangues even unhinged Keith Olberman, who could barely get a tirade in edgewise.
But Matthews’ sour Clinton fixation could not diminish the enormous victory for the top three Democrats and the party itself in Iowa. The Democrats drew more than twice as many to their caucuses as the Republicans did to their straw polls – this in a state that made the mistake of going red for Bush in 2004. While the Democrats reveled in the spirited-but-respectful competition over who would best carry the banner of Change into the general election, the Republican were mired in a bruising mudfight over who could be more regressive, more pro-war, more anti-immigrant, more religious-nutty. The GOP went for an evangelical flash-in-the-pan, Mike Huckabee – a nice enough guy for someone who is so wrong about so much – who was obviously in over his head as he underwhelmed a room full of his supporters (maybe they were blinded by Chuck Norris’ teeth over his shoulder). The GOP had one winner (who has already been rejected by party leaders and lackeys, such as Rush Limbaugh, Mark Belling and Charlie Sykes) and many losers. All three top Democrats were winners, coming out fighting but united behind a common cause.
Barack Obama was, in the immortal word of Shelly Duvall in "Annie Hall", transplendant in victory. My impression of Obama in the various debates had been that he hadn’t yet found his voice – he looked like he was too cautious, almost afraid to say anything, perhaps over-consulted (a common disease). I had heard he found his voice lately on the stump and, indeed, he kicked ass tonight. The speech had everything – the call for change and hope, the historical perspective, call-and-response, perfect pitch and pacing, joy – it was one of the best speeches I’ve watched in some time. If he can carry this momentum for a couple of weeks, he may well be the nominee of the united party.
Clinton was as gracious in defeat as John Edwards was just slightly rude by not congratulating Obama. (But the award for classlessness goes to Mitt Romney, who spoke at the same time Huckabee did, meaning no one would see him on TV as he slunked out of Iowa’s backdoor.) For all the snide comments in the chattering class about Hillary’s mean streak, sense of entitlement, etc., she talked effectively about a Democrat – and not necessarily her – winning in November. For the first time, you could almost see her applauding the torch passing to the next generation. Edwards gave the firebrand speech of the night, giving live examples of the victims of corporate greed, but, alas, Edwards takes little momentum or anything else out of Iowa.
With the field already winnowed by the end of the night (Biden, Dodd out. Richardson?), the debates will gain focus and intensity. I doubt any of the Dems will go negative on each other – all of them seem to have a good sense of the unity necessary for the ultimate prize. The next frantic couple of weeks will be when the messages get massaged and the candidates start aiming for the other side.
I always thought Hillary got too bad of a rap from those who would be for her if she was anyone but Hillary Clinton. The strongest case for her electability is that she really has been beaten and flogged by the full GOP machine for over 15 years. There is nothing new for them to dig up about her – she has been tested and has won most of the battles she has fought. Remember: the only way Bush won in 2004 is by making Kerry look as bad as possible, and they did it by swift-boating him – scandalously attacking the very heroism that was one of his primary strengths.
The same bastards will do the same with Obama, and, having lived a full life, I’m sure there is lots of material to work with. This isn’t a reason not to make this remarkable man the nominee – there is a limit to how much power we should give our opponents to use fear to control our choices. But we should walk into this choice with our eyes wide open. The Obama you see now will look different by November, to the general public, if not to you. You think the right-wing echo-chamber has been hard on Hillary? Watch what they do to try to define Obama now that he has a serious chance, starting on mainstream radio tomorrow.
The exhilaration of all the Democratic campaigns as they celebrated in Iowa was palpable on our TV screen tonight. Whether they finished first, second or third, they know they have gotten a great start in the beginning of the end of Republican rule. In Denver this summer, Obama, Clinton and Edwards will stand on the podium of the convention and raise their joined hands in unity. Then one of them will step up, accept the party’s nomination and go on to thump whatever hapless Republican gets in their way in November. And it all started in Iowa.