Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Clinton Has a Right to Go On, but Why Should She?

Three hypothetical scenarios:

- A woman tells a local news reporter that she believes that blacks and Jews are inferior human beings.

- A 450-pound man walks down a New York City sidewalk wearing only a midriff-baring sleeveless undershirt and a banana hammock.

- A New York Yankees executive asks a reunited Backstreet Boys to sing the national anthem at Yankee Stadium.

What do these three people have in common? All of them have a right to do what they're doing, but in each case, they should choose not to. And if they opt to go through with the actions in question, anybody of conscious will rebuke them for what they have done.

And that is exactly the situation facing Hillary Clinton.

Clearly, Clinton has the right to continue on in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. But, like the racist, the fat streaker or the Backstreet Boys fan, that doesn't mean she should exercise her right.

In fact, Clinton, with the dutiful assistance of the same media that she says is unfairly harsh on her, has completely refocused the issue of her campaign away from the practical eventualities of her staying in the race to an ideological question of what she is entitled to do.

If you listen to Clinton speak, you would think that she and Obama were tied, and that the race could go either way, but the forces that be are trying to get her to drop out anyway. Consider these recent quotes of hers:

"I have no intention of stopping until we finish what we started and until we see what happens in the next 10 contests and until we resolve Florida and Michigan. And if we don't resolve it, we'll resolve it at the convention - that's what credentials committees are for." (From cbsnews.com.)

"My take on it is a lot of Senator Obama's supporters want to end this race because they don't want people to keep voting." (From Yahoo!/AP.)

The problem is, she's wrong.

According to CNN's tally, Obama currently has 1,414 pledged delegates, while Clinton has only 1,243. Of course, if this was a sporting event, you would be fully correct in looking at the numbers and saying, "Wow, that's a close race!" Except this is not a basketball game. With only 10 states left, and with the Democrats awarding delegates on a proportional basis (rather than bestowing a state's entire delegate count on the winner like the Republicans do), it is virtually impossible for Clinton to significantly cut into Obama's lead. And yes, even if Clinton takes her case to the credentials committee at the convention and gets the delegates seated from Florida's beauty contest and Michigan's USSR-style one-candidate primary (both held earlier than Democratic National Committee rules allowed), Clinton still cannot catch Obama.

In other words, the only way for Clinton to secure the nomination is to keep the delegate count as close as possible after the 10 remaining contests are completed, and then persuade roughly two-thirds of the superdelegates to go against the will of the voters and give her the victory. Let's look at the repercussions of such a turn of events:

- It would mean that the party elite would have taken away the opportunity for Obama to become the first African American major party nominee, even after he won more pledged delegates, more states, and probably more popular votes than Clinton. How do you think that will go over, not just with the African American community, but with Obama's supporters as a whole? What kind of message does that send to the American people, who are already wary of insider politics?

- It would also mean that Clinton will have dragged the race not only through the end of the primaries into June, but through to the convention in August (assuming there isn't a mass movement of superdelegates to Clinton before July 1, which seems highly unlikely). All while John McCain builds an infrastructure and raises money in the warm glow of his unopposed GOP coronation. That would leave the Democratic winner with less than three months to heal the wounds of the party's intramural slugfest and put together a campaign operation aimed at McCain. By then, McCain will have had a massive head start in framing the issues and painting the Democratic contender however he sees fit.

- And what would be left of Clinton on September 1, assuming she pulls off this Houdini act and takes the nomination? Her attacks of the last few weeks (the only way to catch Obama was to tear him down) have worked in one way, in that her poll numbers against Obama showed some improvement, at least until her story about snipers in Bosnia was embarrassingly contradicted by CBS News footage. But at what cost? Polls show Clinton currently has her lowest favorability ratings in years. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 29 percent of respondents had a "very negative" opinion of her, compared with 15 percent for Obama and 12 percent for McCain. The same poll also found that 48 percent had somewhat or very negative opinions of Clinton, while 37 percent found her very or somewhat positive, a change from two weeks earlier when her negative was 43 and her positive was 45. If you think her likability took a hit due to her Bosnia fabrications, imagine what would happen if she engineers a party-elite-driven campaign to take the nomination away from Obama? (Obama's numbers in the poll, by comparison, are 49 percent positive and 32 percent negative.)

The bottom line is that while the Clinton campaign and the media would like you to believe this is a close race, the fact is that it is all but over. At this point the question isn't whether Clinton has a right to stay in the race, but what she has to gain by doing so. A March 21, 2008 article on Politico.com suggests that the media is buying into the Clinton argument that the race is close because, among other reasons, it's good for ratings. So the media's motivation can be easily ascertained. But what does Clinton have to gain?

One amazing element of this story that doesn't get enough play is that Clinton acts (and is portrayed) like an underdog, which is preposterous, when you consider how this race shaped up a year ago. She was the establishment candidate. Her husband was a popular, two-term president. She had the elite Democratic advisers on her side, and an early jump on fundraising. Her earliest strategy was "inevitability," so much so that the season premiere of "Saturday Night Live" last September began with a message from the "All-but-Certain-to-Be-Next-President" Hillary Clinton (played, as always, by Amy Poehler).

And yet, not only did Clinton slip behind Obama in votes and fundraising, but despite all of her entrenched advantages, her campaign did not display the one quality you want from a president (especially after seven-and-a-half years of George W. Bush): competency. The campaign failed to adjust to Obama's rise. She has been dogged by stories about the lavish spending on the infrastructure of her campaign, while at the same time battling claims that they are not paying their bills on time (today it came up on CNN that, of all things, the campaign had failed to pay staffers' health insurance premiums).

Most of all, the Clinton campaign failed to build a field operation anywhere near as effective as Obama's, leading to Obama winning nearly every caucus. Which resulted in the Alice-in-Wonderland effect of the former first lady saying that caucuses were undemocratic, since it rewarded the ability to get out the vote rather than the will of the large electorate. But isn't it establishment candidates who usually have the organizations in place to get out the vote for caucuses? By admitting to Obama's preeminence in this area, isn't she essentially admitting to failure?

If Clinton was the underdog from the beginning, an outsider like Ron Paul or Mike Huckabee, it would be hard to argue with her for staying in the race this late even though victory is all but impossible. But even putting the issues aside of the damage Clinton is doing to the Democrats by staying in the race and the unlikelihood of her prevailing, for the establishment candidate to be losing to the upstart by any amount at this stage should be viewed as a loss.

No, it's time for Clinton to go, and to let Obama begin his campaign against John McCain. Does she have a right to stay in the race? Sure, but who cares? She has nothing to gain and everything to lose. And she just may bring down the Democratic hopes in November with her.