The us,-not-me candidate

I seem to keep finding parallels between this election and the 1960s. A popular bumper sticker of that era read, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” Florida had just such a Democratic primary on Tuesday, one that awarded no delegates, that was disavowed by the Democratic National Committee and in which all the candidates had pledged not to campaign.

Most kept their promise. Except that unions supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) waged an intense direct-mail effort and Hillary held several Florida fundraising events in the run-up to the “election.” Then on Tuesday Hillary staged the ultimate media event — a victory celebration for a campaign that no one waged and in which nothing was won. She managed to garner a bit of television time with the likes of Andrea Mitchell and Candy Crowley pointing out that no delegates were at stake but giving the event some patina of legitimacy nonetheless. One commentator wondered aloud where all those Clinton posters and T-shirts had come from if no campaigning had been going on.

All in all it was grand theater, played for the television cameras and newspaper headlines. Interestingly, she scored more points with the mainstream media than she did in cyberspace, where her event got scant coverage (and what there was always mentioned it was all for show).

The message that event sent to American voters may not turn out to be the one the campaign wanted. It doesn’t seem to have taken away from Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) very real victory in South Carolina on Saturday or the endorsements he received from the Kennedy family on Sunday and Monday. The faux victory party may, in fact, contribute to the growing perception that the Clintons will take any possible cheap shot that might advance Hillary’s campaign. (Isn’t it interesting that we’re now referring to “the Clintons” rather than Hillary, the candidate? The reason can be found in a Project for Excellence in Journalism study reporting that the former president was the third most-covered newsmaker between the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary. He got more attention than any of the Republican candidates or any Democrat save Obama and Hillary.)

I’ve spent most of my political career living and working outside the insular Beltway environment of Washington, D.C., so I’m always a little hesitant to assume the real world sees things the way we do here. Still, the growing drumbeat of criticism of the Clintons’ tactics from columnists, commentators and now from iconic political leaders seems to be registering among voters. There is some evidence out of Florida to support that view. Analysis of voting patterns shows that Clinton won a solid majority of early voters, some who mailed in their ballots in December, but she fared less well among those who voted Tuesday. The Washington Post reports that at least one participant in the Clinton media event said the results would have been different had there been a real campaign in Florida.

The Clinton campaign seems to have decided that the politics of personal destruction may have backfired. President Bill Clinton is reported to have toned down his rhetoric considerably and is trying to play a supportive, positive role for his wife rather than be the attack dog that was so responsible for growing criticism of him and his wife’s campaign. The former president’s penchant for bare-knuckle politics, and his refusal to change tactics, were reported to be a major reason for Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) endorsement of Obama. Kennedy is hearing the message from Americans that they are fed up with “the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion” that began to dominate campaigns with the successes of Lee Atwater and were perfected by Bill Clinton and his operatives in the 1990s. In his endorsement speech Kennedy said, “With Barack Obama, there is a new national leader who has given America a different kind of campaign — a campaign not just about himself, but about all of us.”

There is a new generation linked wirelessly into a global community that rejects the self-centered politics of the Clinton era and the “Me” generation that put him in power. They have a message for America, and there are signs that millions of new voters are committed to making it heard. If they continue to vote in large numbers alongside an older generation that wants to believe in something again, Barack Obama will be successful wherever he takes his vision and his charismatic appeal. He may well become, as Caroline Kennedy said, a president who inspires the way her father did and no one has since.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.  E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com