But the desire for a deus ex machina intervening to usher Clinton from the race runs into a number of problems, beginning with the fact that there simply aren’t many Democratic deities around—and the few that might plausibly qualify seem inclined to remain neutral, at least until the conclusion of the primaries. Despite the long history of mutual animus between Al Gore and Hillary, Gore has resisted the temptation to throw his weight behind Obama; and because of that history, even if he did, it would likely have little effect on her determination to carry on, as Gore is well aware. Edwards, who I’m told at one juncture discussed with Gore the possibility of a joint endorsement, now appears to prefer staying mum for the time being, or, if anything, backing Clinton. And Jimmy Carter has stated unequivocally his intention to refrain from choosing sides.
Arguably the two next most influential Democrats are the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid. But Pelosi’s loud advocacy of the view that the superdelegates should vote in line with the pledged delegates belies her pro forma neutrality in the race—thus undercutting any influence she might have with Clinton. “She’s totally in the tank for Obama,” says one Clintonite. “Why would we listen to her?” And while Reid is trying to play the role of honest broker, his mojo in Clintonland is negligible.
No, according to Hillary’s adjutants, the people most likely to have sway with her on this topic are not party elders at all but instead her fiercest loyalists, those who’ve won her trust over the years by dint of their unwavering support. Familiar names from the annals of Clintondom are mentioned: Terry McAuliffe, Vernon Jordan, Rahm Emanuel (likely the only person in this club who is also close to Obama). So, too, are prominent endorsers such as Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell. “If one of her major African-American endorsers, like Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, told her it was time to quit, that would be very powerful,” adds a senior Clinton adviser. Oh, and let us not forget her husband.
For the moment, none of these people, as far as I know, is advising Hillary to fold. They are not idiots and they are not blind—they can read the writing on the wall and do the math as well. But they also believe that, though Clinton’s path to the nomination has narrowed to a cliff walk, it hasn’t been barricaded. If she beats Obama in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Indiana, it may widen again, should the superdelegates start questioning his durability and the potency of his electoral coalition. Or Obama’s candidacy could suddenly blow up in a more spectacular fashion—over further revelations about Wright or some other political IED planted on the roadside ahead.
The question is whether any of those that Clinton trusts are willing to intercede with Hillary if the rancor of the campaign continues to escalate. Despite all the wailing of the party’s Henny Pennys, my own view is that, in the long run, Clinton’s scuffing up of Obama has so far done him more good than harm; it has toughened him, steeled him, and given him a taste, if only a taste, of what he can expect this fall. But Democrats are right to fear that Clinton may find it irresistible to turn her campaign into an exercise in nothing less (and little more) than political manslaughter against Obama. They’re especially right to be worried that she may want to fight on all summer, all the way to the Denver convention—especially with Clinton now talking openly about a floor fight over seating the disputed Florida and Michigan delegations.
Some senior members of Clinton’s campaign have no intention of sticking around if Obama is substantially ahead come June; as much as they’re devoted to their boss, they want nothing to do with a black-bag operation designed to destroy her rival, no matter what the cost. But these same people are also deeply convinced—beyond spin, beyond talking points, to their core—that Obama would be doomed against McCain. And Clinton believes this, too, which is one important reason why she persists despite odds that grow longer each passing day.
Yet, by an irony, Clinton’s grim assessment of Obama’s chances may also be the best cause for hope that she will, sometime between now and the middle of June, find it in herself to leave the stage with a modicum of grace. It may even be a reason, as Walter Mondale’s campaign manager, Bob Beckel, suggested in a column this week, that she winds up filling, against her instincts, the slot as Obama’s veep. For if HRC believes that Obama will lose in November, there can be no doubt that she’s already calculating, in the back of her head, the best way to position herself for 2012. A scorched-earth campaign against Obama is plainly not the way to do that. A classy exit, a show of unity, an act that apparently places party before self: That’s the ticket.
All of which is why party elders aren’t the last best hope for a peaceful resolution of the Obama-Clinton race. The last best hope is that Hillary will eventually come to see yielding as not merely the path to self-preservation, but also as her only route to long-range self-aggrandizement.