You might think the shellacking Obama administered in Wisconsin, and particularly the fact that he won among late-deciders, suggests that those brickbats were futile. Some Clintonites maintain, however, that their hammering came too late and was too light. Hillary’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, is correctly tagged as the most vocal internal advocate of hard contrasts, especially the charge that Obama is unqualified to be commander-in-chief. (The irony here is rich, for no one has berated Obama more for echoing, and thus validating, right-wing talking points in his criticisms of HRC than Penn.) And he is not alone.
But although Team Clinton is replete with bare-knuckled pugilists, many of whom believe that John McCain would, as one puts it, “gut Obama like a fish,” the shrewder among them grasp that heavy-handed, gratuitous assaults would likely backfire, reinforcing the prevailing view of their boss as old politics incarnate and further propagating the image of Obama as the ever-virtuous avatar of the new. What remains unknown is whether Hillary gets that, too—though her refusal to trash Obama’s credentials at last week’s debate in Austin may provide a clue.
If Hillary declines to throw a haymaker, where does that leave her? Hoping that Obama makes an unforced error. Fantasizing that the press will turn against the chosen one. Pleading with Hispanics in San Antonio and aging soccer moms in Cincinnati to feel her pain. Praying that buyer’s remorse sets in before the deal is closed.
Some Clinton advisers realize that heavy-handed, gratuitous assaults would likely backfire. Does she get it, too?
All of which is why, it seems to me, the probable outcome is that Clinton will lose Texas, Ohio, or both, thus destroying any rationale for her continuing to soldier on—not to mention making it difficult for her cash-poor operation to raise money. (How cash poor? Her staff members are currently sharing hotel rooms on the campaign trail.) But let’s imagine that Clinton holds on to her diminishing leads and squeaks out a pair of victories. Let’s imagine further that the momentum then shifts and she carries Pennsylvania. Obama would almost certainly still end the primary season with the lead in pledged delegates. He would have won the majority of states and, quite possibly, the overall popular vote. But Clinton would have taken all of the largest states save Obama’s Illinois. What then?
A hellacious fight over Democratic arcana: over superdelegates and their proper role, over the seating of the disputed Michigan and Florida delegations. To many observers, the Clinton side’s positions—that superdelegates, or “automatic delegates” in the Orwellian construction of her adviser Harold Ickes, should be allowed to override the will of the Democratic electorate; that Hillary’s victories in two states where there was no competition should be ratified, despite the sanctions of the DNC—are absurd on their face. Even some of Clinton’s supporters apparently agree. To the delight of the Obama forces, Bob Kerrey recently opined about the Michigan-Florida situation, “You don’t change the rules in the middle of the game. Period.”
But when I spoke to Kerrey, he sang a different tune. “Harold is saying that they aren’t changing the rules of the game, that the rules permit a challenge,” Kerrey told me. “I don’t know if that’s true, but if those delegates can be seated without breaking the rules, I think that’s fine.”
Fine in theory, maybe. But in practice, a disaster in the making. If Clinton somehow were to secure the nomination by dint of a credentials challenge and a bitter floor fight at the Democratic convention, it would rip the party right in two, with Obama’s supporters believing their man had been denied by anti-democratic finagling. Would winning that way justify the price? Some members of the Clinton crew think so. Chillingly, they say that any Democratic nomination is a nomination worth having. But does Clinton agree?
Cynics will say that the answer is: Are you kidding? Among many in the Democratic Party, the rap on the Clintons has always been that they’re self-regarding, self-centered, infinitely narcissistic. That they see the party as a vehicle for their ambitions, nothing more and nothing less. That their preeminent cause is their own power. How Hillary conducts herself in the days ahead will speak volumes about whether that is actually true of her. (Her husband is another story.) Her debate performance in Austin was gracious, if tough, and free almost entirely of witless ad hominems. When she spoke of being “honored” to share the stage with Obama, it even had an unmistakable valedictory feel. If this is the way she has chosen to go out, the ensuing enhancement of her reputation will be the silver lining to her loss, should losing be her fate. It will also set her up nicely for 2012 if the pessimism of her adjutants about Obama proves painfully prescient this fall—and you’d be a fool to believe this implication hasn’t crossed her mind.