End and Endgame

Illustration by Gluekit Photo: Greg Mathieson/Landov [Hillary Clinton]; Justin Sullivan/Getty Images [Bill Clinton]

The cheeseheads had just rejected her emphatically, overwhelmingly. The Teamsters had just flipped her the bird. The pundits were composing her political obituary. And another handful of superdelegates had just thrown in their lot with Barack Obama. Now, on the evening after the Wisconsin primary, Hillary Clinton was deep in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, standing onstage before a crowd of mostly Hispanic students in Brownsville, Texas. The Rio Grande Valley is the place that gave Hillary her first taste of national politics in 1972, when she volunteered there for George McGovern—and that, 36 years later, she is counting on to help rescue her increasingly doomstruck-seeming presidential campaign.

A moment ripe with possibilities, no? A moment to show that she’s not dead yet, to summon up those elusive qualities of fire and tenacity and humanity that flashed so briefly, so tantalizingly, during the New Hampshire primary. Or maybe to let loose and rip Obama a new one, to draw a powerful contrast between herself and a man she regards as her inferior in all matters except speechifying. But, alas, it was not to be. What Clinton did instead was shout the same bromides that have deposited her in a hole so cavernous she can almost see Beijing. “Thirty-five years of experience.” “Ready to lead.” “Ready on day one.” Yadda yadda yadda.

It’s sometimes said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome is a functional definition of insanity. In politics, though, it’s typically an indicator of desperation or exhaustion—or, as seems to be the case with Hillary, both.

Yet however excruciating the past few weeks have been for Clinton, the days ahead will confront her with two of the most daunting and fateful questions of her political life. In the face of a crumbling electoral coalition, a corps of advisers riven by dissent, and a rival coated in some unholy admixture of Teflon and pixie dust, what can she do to win the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4? And if she does, but still lags behind Obama, just how far will she then go to secure her party’s nomination?

In case you harbor any doubts that Clinton needs to carry both the Lone Star and Buckeye states, no less an authority than her husband said so publicly the other day. But in Texas, despite the Clintons’ long ties to the state and a vast Hispanic population, the public polls show the race to be a statistical dead heat. Add to that the state’s complex rules for delegate allocation, the effect of which is that areas with sizable black populations are weighted more heavily than those laden with Latinos, and its bizarro part-primary, part-caucus process, and you can see why many Texan pols believe Obama has the edge. Meanwhile, in Ohio, Clinton currently holds a lead, but the state’s demographics are similar to Wisconsin’s—only with a higher proportion of African-American voters. D’ohh.

Given all this and the thunderous wave of momentum Obama is surfing, Clinton’s central strategic objective is to alter the dynamics of the race. Beltway gasbags galore have offered helpful suggestions of Hail Mary maneuvers regarding her positive message. Be humble! Be bold! Be personal! Be … somebody else! Clinton’s advisers have heard it all. Some of them even agree. (“Oh, the roads not taken,” a senior Clinton adviser sighed to me recently.) But few of them believe that such gambits would be successful this late in the game. Instead, they’d be seen as inauthentic gimmicks, as her “likability tour” of Iowa all over again.

Hence Clinton’s decision, on the positive side, to stick to her well-thumbed script. To the riposte that it simply isn’t working, her people point to her victories in places such as California. But the problem is that the race has shifted in ways that limit her capacity to accomplish much with such appeals. “The day after Wisconsin, I looked at the exit polls and saw that she’d won among voters who care most about experience by a margin of 95 to 5,” says one Democratic strategist. “So her message is speaking exclusively to a group from which she has nothing left to gain.”

With all positive avenues effectively blocked off, the debate in Clinton-land is all about going negative—or, more precisely, how negative to go. In Wisconsin, the campaign hit Obama with TV ads attacking him on health care, Social Security, and his refusal to debate Clinton there; with direct mail on his “present” votes in Illinois; with conference calls accusing him of flip-flopping on his commitment to public financing, and, yes, of rhetorical plagiarism. “A friend of mine told me how the Marines train people in hand-to-hand combat,” says retired Über-consultant Bob Shrum. “If your opponent has a weapon and you don’t, you pick up an ashtray, a lamp, a chair, anything you can, and keep throwing stuff. It seems to me that’s what the Clinton campaign is doing.”

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.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

End and Endgame