So Hillary Clinton did what she had to do yesterday to earn a tomorrow for her candidacy: She won Ohio (decisively) and Texas (by a hair in the popular vote, though Obama is likely to win the caucus portion of that state’s weird-ass system). It’s true that a few weeks ago, this would have seemed no great feat, so great were HRC’s leads in the opinion polls in both places. But in the face of Barack Obama’s monthlong, twelve-contest winning streak, of being massively outspent on the air and out-organized on the ground, of two debates where she did no better than battle her rival to a draw, of a slow and seemingly inexorable drift of superdelegates (and not just any superdelegates, but John Lewis, for chrissakes) to Obama — in the face of all of that, Hillary’s achievement was inarguably considerable.
There are many explanations for what occurred yesterday, but let’s start by giving credit where it’s due. The Clinton campaign earned these victories. They fought tooth and nail for them, and almost entirely according to Hoyle. Say what you will about her people’s “kitchen sink” strategy, how they’ll “do anything to win.” The attacks they launched against, and questions they raised about, Obama seemed to me legit: on Rezko, on NAFTA-Canuck-gate, on his qualifications to be commander-in-chief. (By legit, I don’t mean that the Clintonites were right on the merits; I mean that the broadsides were within the bounds of acceptable political combat.) And, more than that, they allowed HRC, for the first time in a long time, to seize control of the agenda and put Obama on the defensive.
But it wasn’t just the Clinton campaign that had the hopemonger ducking and weaving. After months of treating Obama with kid gloves, the press — perhaps goaded into action by Hillary’s designated media mau-mauer, Howard Wolfson, perhaps shamed by the scamps at SNL — finally began to treat him for what he was (and still is): the front-runner. His response and that of his campaign were fairly underwhelming. On Rezko, the beginning of whose trial this week guaranteed a new round of grilling, their answers were pat and obfuscatory. On the NAFTA-Canada imbroglio, their explanations were misleading. And when the going got a little tough at a press avail in San Antonio, Obama turned whiny. “C’mon guys,” he moaned as he tried to flee the scene. “I just answered, like, eight questions.”
How much did all this hurt Obama? Hard to say, precisely. But the exit polls suggest that Clinton won handily in both Ohio and Texas among those voters who made up their minds in the last three days — when her attacks were hitting him the hardest. They also suggest, perhaps more worryingly for Obama, that Clinton made headway in reassembling the electoral coalition that had held firm for her through Super-Duper Tuesday. She won solidly in both places among blue-collar workers, those without a college education, women, and the elderly. And in Texas, once again, she kicked his ass among Hispanics, 67-31.
The Obama campaign will say — is already saying, in fact — that all of this matters naught. That the only thing that matters now is delegates. And in a sense, of course, they are correct, as even the Clintonites admit. And here it appears that HRC has done little to dent Obama’s formidable advantage. By the time the counting is over in Texas — which, heaven help us, may not be for another few days — Clinton may only have netted a handful of delegates for all the shouting about her latest shock-the-world comeback.
But as my friend John Dickerson over at Slate observes, “The Democratic race has now come down to a contest of numbers versus narrative.” The Clinton narrative revolves, most obviously, around the fact that Hillary has won all of the biggest and most important states apart from Illinois, Obama’s home. And her team will employ this narrative vociferously in the days ahead to try to keep the 500 or so as yet undecided superdelegates — a portion of which either side will need to reach the magic 2,025 delegates required to nail down the nomination — from siding with their foe.
On a deeper level, however, the Clinton narrative boils down to a blunter, more primal claim: that, in the end, Obama can’t win when it counts. As a senior Clinton official put it to me in an e-mail very late last night, “Here’s the deal on BHO — no one is ever going to have a better month than his February. If you can’t close the deal after that, when can you?”
The argument is patently, glaringly, ostentatiously, unrepentantly self-serving. But for Democrats who want above all a candidate who can indeed close the deal that matters most — the deal that will go down in November — there’s still a chance, however small, that it’s an argument that could cut ice. Especially if, six weeks hence, Clinton wins again in Pennsylvania. —John Heilemann