Politically committed Californians have been watching Iowa these past few weeks with a mixture of frustration and anthropological curiosity. Who are these people? And how come they get to make decisions that might have an impact on the rest of us? The bafflement is emblematic of the coastal response to eight years of national politics.
To watch the returns, I’ve come to an elegant home in southern California, where I’m surrounded by sophisticated artwork and a big crowd of Clinton supporters. The invitation I received included the curious statement that “Hillary is committed to ending the war in Iran” – a Freudian slip, I assume, suggesting that Hillary will begin opposing the Iranian war once she has voted in favour of it. It’s a dissident thought I decide to keep to myself, along with my sneaking preference for John Edwards.
Women of the Clinton generation love Hillary, in a theoretical kind of way, as the fulfilment of the women’s movement. Opinion polls indicate this, and the Hillary gathering bears it out. There are more women than men, even in this right-on part of the country, and baby boomers predominate. “To have a female candidate,” a woman with a Hillary badge tells me, “and not to support her because we dislike this or that about her and because we hold her to a higher standard than the guys – it’s unthinkable.”
I ask another woman why Hillary, and get a one-word answer: “Competence.” A third says: “I can’t bear the thought that the last of our age group to hold high office will turn out to have been Bush – that this will be the final impact of the Sixties generation.” The woman standing next to her, a sceptic like me, I suspect, protests that their generation can surely take some credit for Barack Obama: “Without us, without the Sixties, without the civil rights movement, his rise would not have been possible.” “Yes, but Obama is part of the next generation. If he gets the nomination, our role in history is over.” It occurs to me that this is the kind of argument that makes younger people wonder when the baby boomers are going to get over themselves.
My fellow sceptic is gloomily predicting a three-way split among the leading Democrats, a result that will settle nothing. As for the Republicans, she tells me, she doesn’t “care what they do, as long as they stick it to Giuliani”.
When CNN begins to call the results, I find the woman with the Hillary badge. “Are we downhearted?” I ask her. She raises an eyebrow. “By this? This is nothing. It’s not even binding in Iowa – it’s just another poll, really.” Which might be technically true, but it doesn’t explain why we’re here, with these televisions on, looking in at this strange, bucolic event.
A man passing with a plateful of food stops to point to some statistics on the screen. “You see that?” he says. “Hillary got almost as many Democratic votes as Obama. It was only the independents who gave him that big lead.” But isn’t this what you need to win an election, I ask him, the undecided voters? “I guess,” he says. “But independents can’t vote in most of the primaries.” So the primaries are more important than the real thing? “Listen,” he tells me, “Hillary’s going all the way.”
Watching Obama’s victory speech, as the party goes on around me, I can’t help thinking that these members of Generation Hillary might be shutting their eyes to the big story.