Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Twilight of a strategy

With a decisive victory in the Oregon primary, Barack Obama knocked at the door of securing the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday. The day saw another of those split decisions — Hillary Clinton won the Kentucky primary going away, by more than 30 percentage points. But the math that will not be moved made it inescapable. With his gain of two pledged delegates from Kentucky, Obama went over a top, if not yet the top, securing the majority of all pledged delegates to be awarded — furthering cementing the mathematical hold on the nomination.

As usual, the contrasts between the fortunes of the two campaigns was a visual object lesson in itself. On Sunday, Team Obama put on a campaign rally at Waterfront Park in Portland, Ore., an event that was an Event. More than 75,000 people turned up at a rollicking, high-spirited rally that was as much Woodstock as politics, a rally that may well have been the sign of a torch being passed to a new populist champion of American politics.

The day before, Clinton held another rally from the figurative bunker, appearing at the Maker’s Mark bourbon distillery in Loretto, Ky. Standing beside a stack of bourbon barrels (any of which may have secretly turned up later on the Clinton campaign bus), Clinton made her case for recalibrating the numbers by which the nomination would be decided.

“This is the twilight of Hillary Clinton's run for the Democratic presidential nomination: stops in friendly areas of rural America where the candidate can meet her hardest of hardcore supporters,” wrote Eli Sanders of The Stranger, the Seattle alternative weekly, of a Clinton visit to Oregon the week before. “Barring catastrophe or the collapse of mathematics as we know it, Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee.”

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They’ve been asking the question for weeks now: Why doesn’t Hillary quit? The math has long suggested that, in some ways, it wasn’t necessary for her to surrender, gracefully or otherwise. The impartial calculus of the evolving record of wins and losses has seen to that. In other ways, maybe Clinton is saying that quitting the race isn’t possible. The momentum of her campaign may have made it so.

Maybe it’s a law of political thermodynamics, or just something common to cruise travel: Momentum exacts its own authority. Just like with an ocean liner, it may take as long to stop a major campaign as it takes to set one in motion.

There may be another reason Hillary Clinton can’t quit the race, one she can’t share with her handlers and advisers, one she can’t divulge in polite company.

Simply put: She mustn’t lose to the black guy.

She’ll never admit it — you could subject her to waterboarding and she’d never admit it — but deep down some of Clinton’s resistance to exiting her campaign is that she doesn’t want to be the one to lose to the first viable African American candidate for the presidency. That instinct to fight and hang tough regardless is fundamental to American endeavors. In politics, as in sports, it’s tough enough to lose a contest; no one with any self-respect wants to lose with History attached.

Mike Bacsik of the Washington Nationals didn’t want to give up the 756th career home run to Barry Bonds. Al Dowling of the Los Angeles Dodgers didn’t want to send Hank Aaron the airmail special delivery pitch that broke Babe Ruth’s lifetime home-run record in April 1974. Red Sox hurler Evan Tracy Stallard didn’t want to be the one who served up the tater that put Roger Maris’ single-season home-run total over Babe Ruth’s in 1961. César Gerónimo of the Cincinnati Reds didn’t want to be the hitter forever known for being the 3,000th strikeout victim of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson.

That distaste for defeat is natural. But for Hillary Clinton, a candidate who all campaign long has made subtle or blatant use of social codes and conventions that reinforce race as both third rail and dividing line, a loss at the hands of her more nimble, better-capitalized biracial challenger carries a significance that can’t be submerged.

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Clinton has staked out an emotional territory among her most ardent supporters that’s as exclusive as it is inclusive. The twilight of her campaign has been interpreted as the end of the Clinton era (not likely as long as a Clinton draws breath). But it can also be seen as the twilight of some stubborn resistance to change among those of her generation: white Americans 60 and older.

As the campaign ground on month after month, whether the message was intentional or not, it was increasingly clear: Others need not apply. The ready isolations of racial identification Clinton sought to selectively enlist throughout the campaign are all she can count on now, as her campaign winds down.

Maybe this is why she stood amid a town hall’s worth of supporters next to barrels at a distillery in rural Kentucky over the weekend, instead of at the mouth of a sea of cheering humanity in a waterfront park in Oregon.

Maybe this is what happens when you play to people’s fears as much as their hopes, when you’re as willing to summon the poisonous angels of human nature as to call up the better ones.

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