In the days after John Edwards’s withdrawal from the Democratic race, the political world expected his endorsement of Barack Obama would be forthcoming tout de suite. The neo-populist and the hopemonger had spent months tag-teaming Hillary Clinton, pillorying her as a creature of the status quo, not a champion of the kind of “big change” they both deem essential. So appalled was Edwards at Clinton’s gaudy corporatism—her defense of the role of lobbyists, her suckling at the teats of the pharmaceutical and defense industries—that he’d essentially called her corrupt. And then, not least, there were the sentiments of his wife. “Elizabeth hasn’t always been crazy about Mrs. Clinton” is how an Edwards insider puts it; a less delicate member of HRC’s circle says, “Elizabeth hates her guts.”
But now two months have passed since Edwards dropped out—tempus fugit!—and still no endorsement. Why? According to a Democratic strategist unaligned with any campaign but with knowledge of the situation gleaned from all three camps, the answer is simple: Obama blew it. Speaking to Edwards on the day he exited the race, Obama came across as glib and aloof. His response to Edwards’s imprecations that he make poverty a central part of his agenda was shallow, perfunctory, pat. Clinton, by contrast, engaged Edwards in a lengthy policy discussion. Her affect was solicitous and respectful. When Clinton met Edwards face-to-face in North Carolina ten days later, her approach continued to impress; she even made headway with Elizabeth. Whereas in his Edwards sit-down, Obama dug himself in deeper, getting into a fight with Elizabeth about health care, insisting that his plan is universal (a position she considers a crock), high-handedly criticizing Clinton’s plan (and by extension Edwards’s) for its insurance mandate.
The implications of this story are several and not insignificant. Most obviously, it suggests that the front-runner’s diplomatic skills could use some refinement. It also raises the issue, which has cropped up in a different form after New Hampshire, Super-Duper Tuesday, and the Ohio and Texas primaries, of Obama’s capacity to close the deal. But equally important is how it bears on the questions du jour among Democrats who see their once-uplifting primary campaign descending into self-destructive mayhem: How can we put this thing to bed? How can Clinton be stopped from putting the party through three more months of hell? Where are those vaunted “party elders” who can convince her that it’s sayonara time?
The urgency of these questions began to mount this week, as the level of nastiness reached new heights—or, rather, depths. For all its rhetoric about practicing a new, more virtuous brand of politics, the Obama campaign has been going after Clinton hammer and tongs. Rarely a day passes without his people dubbing her a liar and a fraud. (Although when it comes to Snipergate, it’s hard to blame them.) They have accused Bill Clinton of McCarthyism and invoked the infamous blue dress on which he left his, er, DNA—the latter coming on a blog post arguing that he actually makes McCarthy look benign. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if the Obamans are actively trying to cede the moral high ground.
The sight and sounds of Clinton’s lieutenants scrambling to claim that ground—which, after all, is about as foreign to many of them as the beaches of Bora Bora—has been amusing, as each denunciation of their rival’s negativity is juxtaposed immediately with some fresh depredation from their side. James Carville’s likening of Bill Richardson to Judas Iscariot. (With the beard, I guess, you can kinda see it, but wasn’t Judas a skinny dude?) The clear suggestion by WJC, which provoked the charges of McCarthyism, that Obama is less patriotic than Hillary. Her attempt to reignite the Parson Wright conflagration by asserting that “he would not have been my pastor.”
This would all be good sport, to be sure, were it not for the gathering impression that the two-way battering is taking a serious toll on the Democrats’ prospects in the fall. Poll after poll indicates that Obama’s and Clinton’s negatives are rising—and so are John McCain’s approval ratings, along with his lead among independents over either of them. Then there’s the data indicating that pronounced bitterness is setting in among both Obama and Clinton supporters toward other side: Roughly 20 percent in each category now say they would support McCain if their preferred candidate fails to win the nomination. Ugh.
Which brings us back to those party elders and the calls for them to step in. Now, let’s be clear, those calls are coming exclusively from Obama’s adherents. And they have some logic on their side: If it’s all but mathematically impossible for Clinton to wind up ahead in pledged delegates or the popular vote—and it is—then what conceivable purpose is being served by further bloodshed?