Friday, May 9, 2008

Campaign for an Undignified Climbdown

“She’s had more incarnations than the Dalai Lama, and she’s not as well-liked,” said William Curry, former advisor to Bill Clinton, about Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose picture could be included in the next edition of the Webster’s Dictionary in two places — next to the words “hubris” and “tenacity.”

On Tuesday night, with the returns in from Indiana and North Carolina — Clinton’s latest line-in-the-sand, game-changing, tide-turning, watershed Democratic primaries — many in the media ordered the horseshoe man-sized wreaths for her campaign, a presidential bid that is mathematically all but over.

Clinton’s relentless competitive drive kicked in on Thursday, with the candidate vowing to press the fight to the end of May, seeking a resolution on the delegates from renegade states Florida and Michigan from the Democratic rules committee … acting for all the world as if nothing had happened the night before … oblivious to the world around her, a little like Norma Desmond at the end of “Sunset Boulevard,” a nonentity descending a staircase, ready for her closeup, eyes focused on a camera, on a grandeur, only she can see.

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Clinton’s pledge to continue the fight for the nomination over Sen. Barack Obama reflects the tenacity we’ve come to expect from the senator. But there’s a point at which Clinton needs to weigh continuing to fight for a nomination that will never be the gift outright against what it would mean — what it would be worth — if she were to wrest the nomination from Obama, its likely heir.

Clinton’s all-consuming hubris is such that now, victory is the only meaningful metric the Clinton campaign will entertain. Delegate count, states won, popular vote, donations raised, field advantage — all that stuff fades into insignificance. Now the new Clinton measuring stick is electability, which is just as gauzy and imprecise as it sounds.

Clinton might well have looked at an NBC News poll conducted after Tuesday’s vote. It found that 50 percent of the Republicans who voted in Tuesday’s primaries said Obama would beat Sen. John McCain in the fall, compared to 37 percent who favored Clinton to beat McCain in November. So much for her electability advantage.

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Speaking Thursday in Shepherdstown, W. Va., Clinton pointed to her razor-thin win in Indiana as proof that she can deliver where Obama could not: garnering the older white voters that have eluded him, by comparison to Clinton, in his drive to the nomination. But even that proof may have been faulty.

Clinton won in Indiana, defeating Obama by about 18,400 votes. But some aspects of that victory have to be seen in grimmer, more ambiguous light, thanks to talk-radio Doberman and former pharmaceutical recreation enthusiast Rush Limbaugh.

Weeks ago, Limbaugh floated the idea that Republicans in primary states should register as Democrats (holding their noses if necessary) and vote for Clinton over Obama, the reasoning being that Clinton would be an easier candidate for the GOP to defeat in the fall. True to form, Limbaugh took credit for Clinton’s win in Indiana, claiming his “Operation Chaos” with Republicans masquerading as Democrats gave her just enough to defeat Obama.

There’s no way to know if it’s true, of course. But because it’s possible, it has to call into question the purity of the Clinton vote in Indiana. There’s at least a chance that Clinton’s marginal win in Indiana — and possibly other slim victories earlier in the campaign — were the result of mischief-making by Republicans who have no intention of voting for her in November.

Limbaugh’s cheap gambit may do more to cement the reasoning for Clinton ending her campaign than Limbaugh’s plan to keep it going.

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Clinton has now invested her hopes in winning West Virginia and Kentucky, two states that, on the basis of racial and ethnic demographics, would seem to be in her corner. Team Clinton is counting heavily on it.

But look at it another way. The good people of West Virginia and Kentucky, who can do math as well as anyone, may well decide that a vote based on little more than the candidate’s sheer obstinance — a vote that can’t gain her the nomination even if she won every delegate at stake in both states — is the wrong symbolic signal to send.

With the economies of both states hit by the same economic headwinds as other states, and with the condition of the national economy looming as a central theme of the fall campaign, they may decide that a vote for the candidate reflecting the proven and evolving will of the Democratic party makes more sense than a vote for a candidate who can’t deliver without winning, a candidate who can’t win without tearing the party apart.

Maybe Clinton unintentionally betrayed the same feeling on Thursday, at the rally in Shepherdstown.

The New York Times reported that “[a]t one point in her 19-minute remarks, Mrs. Clinton promised that the United States would have universal health care ‘if I’m president,’ a deviation from her customary ‘when I’m president.’ ”

Was it just accidental use of the wrong conditional conjunction? Maybe. But maybe not. And that’s the issue for the people of West Virginia and Kentucky. No matter how dedicated voters might be to a candidate, it's hard to walk into a voting booth and cast a vote for what you know going in will be the losing side, no matter what the vote totals are.

It’s hard to be a true believer in a candidate when, deep down, the candidate talks like she’s not a true believer herself. When the candidate’s opponent has 91.4 percent of the delegates needed to finish the game.

That’s Hillary Clinton’s dilemma: taking the risk of an undignified climbdown from a lofty unprecedented height while looking for a way out with honor intact, trying to put the brakes on a campaign bus that no longer needs brakes, a vehicle that’s noisily skidding to a stop, the wheels having come off a long time ago.
Image credits: Clinton: Aaron Webb, Flickr/cc. Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard": © 1950 Paramount Pictures. West Virginia, Kentucky pop density maps: JimIrwin (Wikipedia), republished under GNU Free Documentation License.

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