Obamayanapaskovagetty

The new meme is that politics has returned to normal and that this election will now be run by Clinton rules. Many are relieved by this. You could sense the palpable discomfort among many in Washington that their world might actually shift a little next year. But if elections are primarily about fear and mud, and who best operates in a street fight, Beltway comfort returns. This we know. This we understand. This we already have the language to describe. And, the feeling goes, the Clintons can win back the White House in this atmosphere. What she is doing to Obama she can try to do to McCain. Maybe Limbaugh will help her out again.

What I think this misses are the cultural and social consequences of beating Obama (or McCain) this way. I don't mean beating Obama because the Clintons' message is more persuasive, or because the Clintons' healthcare plan is better, or because she has a better approach to Iraq. I mean: beating him by a barrage of petty attacks, by impugning his clear ability to be commander-in-chief, by toying with questions about his "Muslim past", by subtle invocation of the race card, by intermittent reliance on gender identity politics, by taking faux offense to keep the news cycle busy ("shame on you, Barack Obama!") and so on. If the Clintons beat Obama this way, I have a simple prediction. It will mean a mass flight from the process. It will alter the political consciousness of an entire generation of young voters - against any positive interaction with the political process for the foreseeable future. I'm not sure that Washington yet understands the risk the Clintons are taking with their own party and the future of American politics.

The reason so many people have re-engaged with politics this year is because many sense their country is in a desperate state and because only one candidate has articulated a vision and a politics big enough to address it without dividing the country down the middle again. For the first time in decades, a candidate has emerged who seems able to address the country's and the world's needs with a message that does not rely on Clintonian parsing or Rovian sleaze. For the first time since the 1960s, we have a potential president able to transcend the victim-mongering identity politics so skillfully used by the Clintons. If this promise is eclipsed because the old political system conspires to strangle it at birth, the reaction from the new influx of voters will be severe. The Clintons will all but guarantee they will lose a hefty amount of it in the fall, as they richly deserve to. Some will gravitate to McCain; others will be so disillusioned they will withdraw from politics for another generation. If the Clintons grind up and kill the most promising young leader since Kennedy, and if they do it not on the strength of their arguments, but by the kind of politics we have seen them deploy, the backlash will be deep and severe and long. As it should be.

He has a million little donors. He has brought many, many Republicans and Independents to the brink of re-thinking their relationship with the Democratic party. And he has won the majority of primaries and caucuses and has a majority of the delegates and popular vote. This has been a staggering achievement - one that has already made campaign history. If the Clintons, after having already enjoyed presidential power for eight long years, destroy this movement in order to preserve their own grip on privilege and influence in Democratic circles, it will be more than old-fashioned politics. It will be a generational moment - as formative as 1968. Killing it will be remembered for a very, very long time. And everyone will remember who did it - and why.

(Photo: Yana Paskova/Getty.)

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