Who’ll Stop the Pain?

Illustration by Darrow

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?

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.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

Who’ll Stop the Pain?