Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Clinton May Have Won Pennsylvania, but Democrats Were the Real Losers

Fourteen delegates. That should be the story from yesterday's Democratic presidential primary. Because as of this morning, according to CNN, that's the number of delegates Hillary Clinton picked up over Barack Obama (80 to 66, with 12 more delegates to be determined). Put another way, the grand result from yesterday's vote is that Obama's lead in pledged delegates has been shaved from 168 (1418 to 1250) to 154 (1484 to 1330). That's all.

What hasn't changed? Clinton can't catch Obama in pledged delegates (and likely can't even chop her deficit to under 100). Clinton can't catch Obama in the number of contests won. Clinton probably will not catch Obama in the overall popular vote, barring some kind of epic collapse (even with picking up just over 200,000 more ballots in Pennsylvania, Clinton still trails Obama by more than 500,000). And Clinton can't win without the superdelegates stepping in and overturning the lead handed to Obama by the voters.

Even more importantly, Clinton still has no path to securing the nomination while also keeping the Democratic party from imploding.

Paul Begala said on CNN last night that Clinton can be wonkish, offering an array of multi-point solutions for every problem. (And he's a Clinton supporter.) But the one issue she has not been able to address is how she can lead the party after gaining the nomination only by the exertion of influence from party insiders? If that happens, how does she make the argument that she can change the "old" politics that have ruled Washington for decades? More importantly, what message does such an insider switcheroo send to the millions of newly registered Democrats, many of whom were inspired by Obama? And what do you think the base of the party, especially African-Americans, will do if Clinton wrestles the nomination from someone who, by the vote of the people, had a claim to be the first major-party minority candidate for president?

Barring some kind of legendary gaffe by Obama, there is no scenario under which Clinton can be the Democratic nominee and have the party emerge united and energized. After all, it is likely that her win would not even be secured until the convention at the end of August, giving the Democrats less than 10 weeks to put the pieces of their broken party back to together.

That's why the real story of yesterday's Pennsylvania presidential primary is the mere 14 delegates Clinton picked up on Obama. There is no real issue of who will win. Or, maybe more accurately, there is still only one way for Clinton to be the nominee -- through the hand of the unelected superdelegates -- and that has not changed in any way based on yesterday's results.

As I watched Clinton's supporters celebrate at her victory speech, I couldn't help thinking to myself, what are they so happy about? Yes, I understand, the candidate they want to be the nominee won a primary. I get it. But what I don't follow is what exactly they think they accomplished. Do you think the Republicans were happy with yesterday's outcome? Do you think John McCain is delighted that the two Democrats will continue to battle each other, slinging more and more mud, while he glides through campaign stops gilding his completely fabricated persona, removed from any scrutiny into his actual record and positions (this guy has flip-flopped on key issues like taxes, torture and abortion more than John Kerry ever did)? I would say yes and yes. Which is why I don't understand the excitement of the Clinton supporters.

I would love to ask Clinton's voters a few questions:

- Do they honestly believe that their candidate will be the Democratic nominee?

- If so, how will the nomination will be secured?

- Do they honestly think it's acceptable that McCain is allowed to campaign unopposed, painting his own distorted picture of who he is and what the Democrats stand for?

- Is there any way for her to win the nomination and leave the party energized and united for the November election?

- If so, how?

- And how can such a unification take place in 10 short weeks, especially when McCain will have had a head start of five months?

These are honest questions facing Clinton supporters at this point, and they are questions that nobody is really stepping forth and answering.

It doesn't help that Clinton's campaign now essentially boils down to one argument to the superdelegates: She is more electable than Obama in November. This argument fails spectacularly on two grounds.

First, at this point, the question isn't pristinely who has the best chance of winning against McCain in November. Sure, back before Iowa, that was not only a fair question, it was the most important question. But now that all but seven states (plus Guam and Puerto Rico) have voted, and now that Obama has an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates and contests won, it is no longer as simple as deciding who has a better chance in November. Because giving the nomination to Clinton would have consequences, ripping the Democratic party apart, which would have a direct effect on her electability. Her ability to win can no longer be judged in a vacuum.

Second, Clinton claims she's more electable mainly based on primary results, with her frequent claims that she has beaten Obama in key swing states and won the big states like New York and California. The problem with this approach is that her argument assumes that her voters in a primary won't vote for Obama. In other words, she is implying that the 55 percent of Pennsylvania Democrats who voted for her would not vote for Obama in November. The test of which candidate is better suited to win in the swing states has nothing to do with who wins the primaries, but who would beat McCain in a head-to-head match-up. It's silly to assume that a Clinton voter will prefer McCain to Obama in November. Logic says that Democrats will "come home" in November and prefer their candidate to McCain. The only major threat I see to this happening is a party (or section of the party) angry over one candidate stealing the nomination. So Clinton being the nominee would itself be the biggest threat to Democratic victory in November. (We won't even discuss Obama's victories over Clinton in key swing states like Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin.)

I get even angrier that the media never challenges Clinton on her argument that her victories in big states like New York and California show that she would be stronger than Obama in November. These states will vote for the Democrat whether its Clinton or Obama on the ticket. Hell, the Democrats could nominate Jerry Springer for president and still probably carry New York and California (along with a bunch of other solidly blue states). And if the Democrats are even in danger of losing New York and California, then we would be looking at a rout of Reagan-Mondale proportions. So Clinton's claims over her wins in the big states is completely disingenuous.

Which leads, really, to the biggest problem of all with a Clinton candidacy: too many Americans don't like or trust her. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted last week, only 39 percent of respondents found Clinton to be "honest and trustworthy." Only 63 percent of Democrats found her trustworthy, and, even more importantly, only 37 percent of independents said they trusted her. In considering electability in November, no factor may count more than Clinton's consistently high unlikability ratings, which have been hurt in recent weeks by her attacks on Obama. How do you think she will do if it is perceived that she stole the nomination from Obama? It is an uphill battle to be elected president when half the country won't vote for you.

As Democratic voters in Indiana and North Carolina go to the polls on May 6, they should be thinking about more than just, "Do I like Clinton better than Obama?" At this point, the question should be, "How can I vote in a way that gives the Democrats the best chance of beating McCain in November?" Or, "Is there a path for Clinton to secure the nomination and lead a united, energized party into the November election?" If these questions are on the minds of Democrats in Indiana and North Carolina, it will be a good day for Barack Obama. If they are not, it will be a good day, not for Hillary Clinton, but for John McCain.