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Boss Clinton

It was meant to be a culmination for a new political power—formed from the audacity of hope, fervent young people and a spirited movement. It was supposed to be—on the same spot where the Republicans will proclaim their presidential nominee a few months from now — Sen. Barack Obama’s coronation.

Never before had an African-American reached such political heights. One-hundred forty-three years after the last shots of the Civil War, 40 years after Bobby Kennedy fell to the ground in Los Angeles — taking the last vestiges of optimism of a generation with him — Obama’s remarks, on the final night of 2008 primary voting, were supposed to mean that the Democrats internal party struggle had ended, and the one for the country had begun.

Image has not been found. URL: /files/washingtonindependent/clinton-as-political/Obama-Column.jpgBut far away, in New York. another power had finally found its voice, and crystallized its power. Yes, Obama had earned the necessary delegates to be the presumed nominee for the Democratic Party in the race for the White House. But he had stumbled in key states and lost badly in South Dakota. Some 18 million people — depending on whom you ask — had voted for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. She had, in her own way, built a formidable coalition of middle-class whites, Latinos and women. Speaking to them last night, not conceding the race to Obama, Clinton stood as their leader, their avatar and their voice within the Democratic Party’s corridors of power.

“In the coming days, I’ll be consulting with supporters and party leaders to determine how to move forward with the best interests of our party and our country guiding my way,” she said in the middle of congratulating Obama and thanking her supporters for welcoming her into their homes.

Any reporter covering this campaign knows that as devoted as Obama supporters are, Clinton’s can be just as passionate. Those of us with the privilege of covering the contest have seen Clinton rise to Obama’s eloquence and precision, as well as the warm feeling that emanates from a room of Clinton supporters.Talking to them, you realize that they’re not there out of some vague sense of pragmatism or a longing for her husband — but out of a belief in the woman and her cause. As such they are, as Chris Matthews suggested on MSNBC late last night, hers to lead.

Perhaps not since Teddy Kennedy’s failed bid for the Democratic nomination against the incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980 has a second-place finisher generated the kind of support Clinton has over the course of this campaign. In some ways Clinton last night became what Obi-Wan Kenobi did on his defeat to Darth Vader in Episode IV of "Star Wars" — she morphed into figure more powerful than any of us could possibly imagine. Tuesday night, confronting numerical defeat, Clinton transformed herself from a candidate for president to something, someone, more important: a political boss.

We like to think of the “boss” as a figure of another era — those older, usually heavy-set white men, draped in a haze of cigar smoke, huddled high above a convention hall, deciding the fate of their party and, in turn, the country. Our lasting image is of Richard J. Daley shouting down poor Abe Ribicoff at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Within a decade, Boss Daley and, it seemed, the entire machine system would be dead. That is, until now.

Enter Boss Clinton. During the campaign, as she moved away from the fading memories of her husband’s era, she formed a base of her own, one that seems, at the very least, skeptical of the man that the rest of the party — including both Kennedy and Carter, as well as John Edwards and John Kerry and Tom Daschle — have welcomed into their hearts.

Her people will not support Obama just because he is the party’s nominee for president. They will not do it because they are Democrats, or because they fear Sen. John McCain will be the proxy for George W. Bush. No. They’ll do it if Clinton tells them.

In the hours and days to follow, we will learn much. We’ll learn whether a party fractured can heal itself. If Clinton will officially concede, as many have wanted, or whether she’ll take her fight forward in some fashion. We’ll learn whether she, like Lyndon B. Johnson and Edwards before her, can sublimate her own presidential ambitions and take the vice president slot. More important, we’ll learn what Clinton wants, and what the party leadership and, especially, Obama are willing to give her — in return for the support of those she now represents.

What will happen remains, at best, unclear. What we do know is that millions will be waiting for her to announce her decision, to heed her call. We know that, for the first time in American political history, a woman has in her grasp the faith and hope of millions who, by giving her their vote, have empowered her to change the party as she sees fit.

Oh, and something else. No matter what happens, the whole world’s watching.

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