Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The fierce urgency of No

“It’s over.” Just that fast — only hours after Clinton campaign adviser and champion of optimism Terry McAuliffe promised great things for the day’s results, hours after the forecasts of close races in one and possibly two states — no fewer than three of the cable pundits sounded nothing less than the death knell of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, a demise at the hands of Barack Obama’s tough, nimble, streetwise insurgent bid for the presidency of the United States.



Just that fast, the longest, most demographically diverse, most widely participated primary campaign in Democratic political history may be on the brink of finality. Seriously. This time for real. In a lightning year, Barack Obama switched everything up, reversed the axis of Clinton’s political world-view. She was once the inevitable Democratic presidential nominee; now, a year later, that long-ago perception is about to be real — for someone else.

Even pundit emeritus Pat Buchanan, MSNBC analyst and reflexive right-wing apologist, said it plainly: For Team Clinton, “this is the night the music died.”

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Obama, long considered the likely (but not certain) winner in North Carolina, pulled off what amounted to a blowout, beating Clinton early by fourteen percentage points. And in Indiana, a state most recently considered safe for Clinton by a wide margin, Obama lost the Tuesday primary to Clinton by less than two percentage points — a difference at this writing of about 22,000 votes — gaining a solid moral victory over Clinton in a battleground state Clinton had staked much of her campaign’s future on.

Obama’s strong performances were generally due to a stronger showing with white women and ethnics, and a still-strong turnout from college students, college grads, young professionals and, ever his bedrock, the African American voters whose 9:1 support ratio for Obama over Clinton (in North Carolina) sent a signal to Team Hillary: No okey-doke this time.

And three other factors sweetened the lopsided win in North Carolina. First, Obama did it without the backing of favorite son John Edwards, the former presidential hopeful whose endorsement was sought by both Clinton and Obama.

Then, too, Obama didn’t just beat Hillary Clinton, he also beat Bill Clinton, the former president and the best retail politician of his generation, the man who barnstormed no fewer than nine towns on Hillary’s behalf the day before, tapping into the state’s rural strongholds.

And most importantly, Obama had prevailed in a major swing state despite a furious onslaught of Clinton attacks on peripheral issues such as patriotism, the flag, elitism and the comments of former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

“For Mr. Obama, the outcome came after a brutal period in which he was on the defensive over the inflammatory comments of his former pastor,” The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney reported. “That he was able to hold his own under those circumstances should allow him to make a case that he has proved his resilience in the face of questions about race, patriotism and political mettle — the very kinds of issues that the Clinton campaign has suggested would leave him vulnerable in the general election.”

In a post-victory rally in Raleigh, Obama hit the high ground running with a speech that restated his principles, offered at least the contours of specific proposals, and sent a pre-emptive message to the McCain opposition-in-waiting, one intended to inoculate the race to November from character assassinations and cheap shots on character. In a speech that sounded as much like an acceptance speech for the nomination as a post-victory address, Obama set the tone for the campaign going forward. On Wednesday, McCain’s whiteboards come out.

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“Sometimes in campaigns, the candidate is the last to recognize the best timing,” said NBC News’ Tim Russert. And what Hillary Clinton recognizes now is up for debate. Clinton canceled all but one of her Wednesday campaign appearances. In her post-win rally in Indiana, Clinton repeated her pitch for more donations online. NBC reported that Hillary Clinton may have personally lent her campaign more than the $5 million she recently acknowledged.

“I will work for the nominee of the Democratic Party, because we must win in November.” Clinton said tonight, using a curious phraseology that excludes her as “the nominee” by linguistic default. This was Clinton’s tale of two speeches: one a traditional after-victory rouser, the other, really, nothing less than a valedictory.

The Clinton campaign, has increasingly adopted as its latest branding the brave face of the candidate herself, whose use of the words “fight” and “fighter” increased in recent weeks. But after this victory — one that got her no net advantage, gained her no shift in the fundamental delegate math — there was something you could see on TV after the skin-of-the-teeth win in Indiana.

Hillary was as seemingly relentless as ever. But it was there in the expressions on the face of daughter Chelsea, witness to the second tragedy in a week (days earlier she was at the Kentucky Derby, where Eight Belles, Hillary’s pick to win, broke two legs at the finish and had to be euthanized at the track). You could see it in the well-tanned exhaustion in Bill Clinton’s face, a mixture of regret and defiance.

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It’s not even a matter of timing anymore. The Clinton campaign is now forced to rely solely on a deus ex machina strategy, hoping that Hillary will prevail through an Obama accident. She’s hoping to win not by winning but by the other guy losing.

Football fans know how that goes. Every year in the runup to the playoffs, there's always some team whose postseason fortunes depend entirely on another team's collapse: Team F gets in the playoffs if Teams X and Y both lose next week, or if Team B beats Team Z on a Monday night when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars —

That's the cosmic Hail Mary that Team Clinton is counting on.

The Clinton campaign orchestra is playing for time, avoiding the probable inevitable as long as possible, hoping to limp along until the Democratic rules committee meets on May 31 to decide the fates of the delegates of Florida and Michigan. But appealing to them, and to the remaining superdelegates, to conjure her a delegate lead she hasn’t earned is like calling on the referees to award a team three touchdowns late in the fourth quarter — when the team's down by five.



The desperation that’s been the emotional subtext for the Clinton campaign for the last month more fully asserted itself on Tuesday. It’s not subtext anymore. The constant recalibrating of primary election metrics, the toweringly dumb adoption of Republican policies and rhetoric, the insistence of trying to make a non-issue The Issue … it all came clear when the cable-TV echo chamber used the words “It’s over.”

What may be left is the orchestration, the way of giving Clinton what’s been called a “dignified climbdown,” an exit with honor. It may be nothing more than to be allowed the presumptive primary victories on May 13 in West Virginia and May 20 in Kentucky, sure Clinton wins given the demographics. A chance to go out with one in the win column. Maybe, just maybe, some obligatory consideration for a spot on the Obama ticket. Or maybe not.

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Tuesday night was the night that Hillary Clinton couldn’t close her own deal, and it couldn’t happen at a worse time. The life-or-death decisions now faced by a campaign once thought to be invincible can’t be avoided. There’s no waiting, no riding it out until June. The delegates in Florida and Michigan can’t help her, unless she won all of them, which won’t happen. Soldiering on like nothing big happened on Tuesday is not an option. Not when she’s paying for her own campaign with her own money.

When you’re frantically treading water, it just won’t do to say to the people watching you, “hey, how do you like my backstroke? Wait til you see my breaststroke, it’s a winner!” Sooner or later it’s obvious to everyone — from the people on the shore to the people at the marina to the people on the boat you fell off of — that you’re about to go under.

The superdelegates who watched what amounted to two Obama wins Tuesday night are making a similar, politically practical calculation right now.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. coined the phrase “the fierce urgency of now.” Barack Obama uses the phrase as a signature of his campaign. But no one knows that urgency quite like Hillary Clinton does today.
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Image credit: North Carolina population density map: JimIrwin (Wikipedia), republished under GNU Free Documentation License.

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