Tuned In

Election Watch: A Finale, and a Cliffhanger

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And so last night, the surprise hit of the 2007-08 television season came to an end… but with a cliffhanger. As had been foreshadowed for some time now, Barack Obama declared victory in the Democratic primary in a climactic speech in St. Paul, Minnesota, setting up a dramatic fall-season storyline with John McCain.

But as viewers of serials like Lost know, major characters have a way of not being as dead as you think they are—and there’s always a twist. In the stunning epilogue, who should emerge from the shadows but Obama’s old rival Clinton, accompanied by 17 or 18 million voters (depending whose math you use) and the not-so-thinly-veiled suggestion that, like it or not, he needs to join up with her and go baaaack, to vanquish their common foe and bring peace to the Island. Have we seen the last of her, or will she have a prominent regular role in the next season?

And who is that in the coffin? John McCain? Or the Democrats’ chances of winning the White House?

OK, the analogy is starting to break down here, but let me push it just slightly more: if there is an Island in this version of Democratic Lost—that is, a mysterious force impelling the characters to reunite and complete their unfinished business—it could well be the political media. Whatever Obamaphilia pundits may have, whatever antipathy to Clinton her side may see, last night it quickly became clear that just as she was not conceding yet, neither were they ready to let her go. The conversation quickly turned from the historic occasion of Obama’s nomination to Clinton’s endgame—or, really, post-end-game—and whether or how she might secure a place as Obama’s running mate. Just as they had been doing for months, pundits were psychoanalyzing Hillary and Bill, wondering what they want, what wheels inside wheels constituted their plans, whether her tenacious not-a-concession speech would backfire.

How could they want her to step off stage for good? What would they possibly talk about?

For all the talk of MSNBC as Ground Zero of anti-Hillary media sentiment, from where I was sitting CNN’s panel last night was the most outspokenly critical of Clinton’s tenacity and/or denial. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews was less focused on Hillary than on Obama’s nomination as the first black major-party candidate, waxing sentimental and dropping historical names as is his wont. (The audio was out on Fox News at my house last night, as my TiVo betrayed its liberal, pro-Obama bias.)

CNN’s pundits, on the other hand, were pretty much agog. Gloria Borger related an email from a Hillary supporter explaining why she had not conceded her loss or endorsed Obama: “This needed to be her night,” she quoted. To her left, Jeffrey Toobin’s jaw pretty much hit the dais desk (Update: corrected erroneous furniture reference)—”What?!” he interjected, suggesting that the night arguably belonged to the candidate who, you know, won, then going on to rant about “the deranged narcissism of the Clintons.”

Seriously—you expect the cable pundits to give that up so easily? The chance of having Clintons to gab about for another five months… or four years… or, hell, sixteen? I kid, a little, but the ironic fact right now is that whatever Hillary is after (the Veep slot, influence over the platform, etc.), the media’s fixation on her and Bill—whatever its motivation—may be her greatest practical advantage and source of leverage. Yes, even more than her voters.

Why? From a practical political standpoint, her value as a running mate is not directly a matter of how many people voted for her. It’s a question of how many people would vote for Obama who would not have voted for him otherwise if she becomes his No. 2, and how that compares with what other Veeps would bring. But—assuming for the sake of argument that she and her campaign want her on Obama’s ticket—her value and leverage depends in large part on how much attention she can command now that the primaries are over. And with no actual votes to focus news attention on her and her followers, that can only come from the media’s fixation on psychoanalyzing her, which—inadvertently or very cannily, she only made stronger last night.

In the meantime—whether Clinton lands a recurring role next season or not—there’s a general election to be fought one way or another, and last night gave us a preview of the telegenics of it. At first blush, that part of the contest looks hopeless for McCain. (Here I’ll throw in my standard disclaimer that I voted for Obama in the primary—and incidentally, for McCain in the 2000 GOP primary, and twice for Clinton for Senate in New York.) Obama’s and McCain’s speeches were not on the same scale. They were barely even in the same medium. Simply in visuals, aesthetics, delivery and crowd dynamics, Obama’s rapturous arena reception—in the GOP’s own house, where McCain will be nominated in August—played like a big-budget network production; McCain’s, in front of a lurid green backdrop, was practically public-access.

The question for the fall is whether McCain can turn that deficit into an advantage—playing his lack of rhetorical flourish and camera-readiness as authenticity. In the meantime, though, we also have the Obama-Clinton epilogue to chew over endlessly on cable. That’s what well-structured cliffhangers are for, after all. How else to you keep the audience’s attention over the summer season?

Update again: Chaddogg points out that, while I was watching CNN last night, The Daily Show also made the Lost comparison. Here, Obama is Michael and Hillary is Charles Widmore. And I’m kicking myself for missing the Farmer Wants a Wife analogy: