Heilemann: Bill Clinton Wades Into Nevada’s Democratic Muck Fest

There’s no way that a post of modest length can convey the scale, depth, and texture of the weirdness that was the Nevada Democratic caucuses. But let me just say this: In the course of covering Bill Clinton for nearly two decades, I have been in his presence when he has held forth at great length and in mind-numbing detail on topics ranging from Arkansan watermelons to the political lessons of sumo wrestling. But never have his discursive skills been employed to more surreal effect than they were late Saturday night, in the wake of his wife’s 51-45 victory over Barack Obama, when he was overheard riffing on the turnout at Caesar’s Palace, the thrill of winning the Mirage, and the voter demographics at the Mandalay Bay.

What went down in Nevada was more than bizarre, however. It was downright ugly. There were negative ads and robo-calls of unusual harshness, with explicit racial overtones. There were accusations of voter intimidation and vote suppression. There was politically motivated litigation and various forms of union-driven jiggery-pokery. Nobody had clean hands in this mess: The Clinton and Obama operations were both up to their elbows in the muck. An independent group supporting Obama, UNITE-HERE, put up a Spanish-language radio ad that said, “Hillary Clinton does not respect our people … Hillary Clinton is shameless.” And Clinton’s allies in the local teachers union attempted to shut down the at-large caucus sites at the casinos on the Strip on the basis that they amounted to discrimination against workers who had no access to them. The former president himself got into the act, when — at an event at a community-center YMCA in North Las Vegas where I was the only national reporter present — he made the following, utterly unverifiable, claim:

Today, when my daughter and I were wandering through the [Bellagio] and all these culinary workers were mobbing us telling us they didn’t care what [the Culinary Workers Union, which endorsed Obama] told them to do, they were gonna caucus for Hillary, there was a representative of the organization following along behind us going up to everybody who said that, saying, “If you’re not gonna vote for our guy, we’re gonna give you a schedule tomorrow so you can’t be there.”

Just before the caucuses began, David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, dispatched a memo arguing that Team Clinton was “engaged in a systematic effort to discredit the process” — so that if Hillary lost, they could attempt to write the whole thing off as illegitimate. And this certainly seems to have been the case. At one point, mulling around the Planet Hollywood casino, where Clinton’s adjutants were ensconced, I offered to one of her campaign officials that I had never seen such a fucked-up electoral system — one where some caucus votes counted more than others, where casino owners and casino-workers unions were patently exerting pressure left and right to affect the outcome, where there was no civic tradition of caucusing in a state that had been elevated to such a position of influence in the selection of the Democratic nominee — in my life. This official replied, “Yeah, and I think we did a pretty good job of making that clear.”

In the end, of course, those efforts were rendered unnecessary by Clinton’s win (though the Obama camp maintains that their man, by the abstruse mathematics that govern such affairs, actually racked up more Nevada delegates — which seems likely to prove true once those delegates are officially selected in April). For Clinton, the triumph was a shot in the arm, a second consecutive victory in a contest that many analysts believed, in the wake of the culinary workers’ endorsement of her rival, she was doomed to lose; and one that will make an Obama victory this Saturday in South Carolina, where the polls currently give him a double-digit lead, easier to swallow. It allowed her husband to crow at a rally afterwards in St. Louis, where HRC and WJC stopped on their way back home to New York, “Eleven days ago, there were people who were dancing on Hillary’s grave, but they’ve got another thing coming now!”

The pertinent question, though, is whether Nevada portends more ugliness to come, particularly of the racial variety. In South Carolina, the Democratic electorate is at least 50 percent black, and many of the critical states on February 5 contain sizable portions of both African-American and Hispanic voters. If the same sorts of appeals and tactics that were pervasive in Nevada recur in the next two weeks, whoever eventually wins the nomination may find that his or her first order of business isn’t either resting up or gearing up for the fight ahead with the Republicans. It may instead be the reparation of the deep and bitter breaches that now threaten to open up inside the Democratic Party. —John Heilemann

Related: Heilemann on South Carolina's Republican Primary: Guess Which Three Bleed Next [NYM]

For a complete guide to New York presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani—from First Love to Most Embarassing Gaffe—read the 2008 Electopedia.