When does victory really mean defeat? When Barack Obama won the Democratic primary election in South Carolina last Saturday.
Obama beat Hillary Clinton, his main rival for the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency, by a convincing 55 to 27 percent of the vote.
But, according to the crazy logic of US politics, by carrying the state with the support of about 80 percent of African-American voters, Obama may make himself vulnerable to the charge of being primarily a black candidate.
That’s certainly what Hillary Clinton’s husband Bill was hinting at when he pointed out after the result that the civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson won the Democratic primary in South Carolina in 1980 and 1984. The implication is that Obama can’t fulfil the hope expressed by his latest backer, senator Ted Kennedy, and “transcend race”.
All this shows how deeply permeated by racism US society remains.
The Clintons make a very tough and nasty political team. Hillary floats stateswoman-like above the fray, while Bill gets down and dirty in the daily exchanges of attack and rebuttal.
This is a clever tactic. Bill Clinton remains a very popular figure, who, polls suggest, would have won a third term as president if the constitution had allowed him to run again in 2000.
He has cultivated close relations with the African-American establishment, earning the absurd title from the novelist Toni Morrison of “the first black president”. He’s now using this political capital to get Hillary into the White House.
It’s hard for Obama to reply in kind to the attacks coming from an ex-President with huge standing among the Democratic rank and file.
Now the battle for the nomination moves on to the huge contest of “Super Tuesday” on 5 February, when 22 states hold primaries or caucuses. These include such key battlegrounds as New York, New Jersey, and California, critical to any Democratic bid for the presidency.
My guess is the Clinton machine will have the edge in the coming contest. This is partly because of their experience and ruthlessness, but also because the links they have nurtured for more than 30 years with every possible Democratic constituency – first to elect Bill, and now to elect Hillary.
Thus a fortnight ago Clinton carried the Democratic caucuses in another important state, Nevada, thanks to the support of women and Latinos.
Her carefully cultivated image as the champion of 1970s feminism also helped her to win the New Hampshire primary before that, a victory that kept her in the race after Obama’s surprise win in the Iowa caucuses.
Some people think this is a win-win situation. As the writer and blogger Patrice Evans put it in the Guardian last week, “A black man! A woman! At the same time! No matter who wins, it will be an epic moment.”
But this is purely symbolic politics. In fact, the “change” that both candidates claim to be seeking means no real change.
Both Clinton and Obama want to apply a sticking plaster to the insane and unjust health insurance system. Both think the federal government should pump some money into the US economy to prevent a slump. Both have refused to pledge to withdraw US troops from Iraq during what they hope would be their first term of office.
In other words, both Clinton and Obama are running as loyal servants of the US empire, just like every serious Democratic candidate before them.
How could it be otherwise given the headlock the corporate rich have on the US political system? The Democrats may not get many contributions from George Bush’s pals in the oil industry, but they get plenty from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood.
The idea that either Clinton or Obama, if elected to the White House, would significantly improve the condition of the mass of working class women and black people in the US is pure cloud-cuckoo land. Anyone who really wants change in the US will have to look elsewhere.