Sen. Hillary Clinton won a whopping, huge-voter-turnout victory Tuesday, May 13, in West Virginia. Nonetheless, there followed more calls by media and some politicos for her prompt withdrawal from the Democratic presidential nominating race. Exit polls in West Virginia ratified Clinton's continuing strength among women, blue-collar, union, and older voters, as well as Sen. Barack Obama's vulnerability in states with comparatively low African-American populations.
A strange syndrome has set in among people who, not long ago, were defenders of the Clintons during Whitewater, commodities trading, Travelgate, Paula Jones, Ken Starr, Monica Lewinsky, Asian campaign contributions, drug-dealer pardons, and impeachment, among other travails.
The differences between then and now are several.
First, the Clintons' adversaries then were Republicans, a special counsel, and a few conservative-leaning media outlets. It was easy for Democrats to buy into the Clintons' assertions that their troubles were not due to them but to someone else — the Republican attack machine, right-wing extremists, drug and insurance companies trying to destroy health-care reform, and so on. It was always the dog who ate their homework. Hillary Clinton has tried the same approach in 2008 but, this time, added to her list of adversaries men who were threatened by the idea of a woman president and white-guilt liberals falling in behind a relatively unknown black candidate.
Second — and this is the critical difference — her opponent now is a likeable, fresh Democratic newcomer running on a platform of policy change and national unity. He has run a notably positive campaign. Not easy to charge him with smearing Hillary unfairly.
Finally, previously favorable media, in particular, have just plain run out of patience with the Clintons. The Clintons' 2008 playing of the race card, focus on wedge politics (setting one group against another on the basis of race, gender, age, or class), and hard-edged campaign tactics have alienated just about every mainstream media organization, columnist, and political reporter.
Some of this amounts to justice. But the ceaseless calls for a Clinton withdrawal are not fair. She is, in fact, far closer in popular votes and delegates to Sen. Barack Obama, three months ahead of the party convention, than many other challengers have been in two-person races for the Democratic or Republican presidential nominations.
Morever, although Clinton has run a sometimes rough campaign against Obama, it has been far less so than many prior national campaigns in both parties. In both 1948 and 1960, for instance, the Democratic nominating contests and conventions were rough, but Presidents Truman and Kennedy nonetheless won their fall general elections. The 2008 nominating contest has not been divisive when compared to many prior contests.
With West Virginia behind her, Clinton has five more primaries to contest with Obama through June 3. She could win three of them. Moreover, the unresolved issue of the unsanctioned Michigan and Florida primaries has not yet gone before the party's rules and/or credentials committees. How will those states' delegations be constituted — if, in fact, they are eventually to be seated? How many delegates will Obama and Clinton harvest in each state? (The credentials committee, with decisive authority, is weighted toward Obama delegates.)
There is another matter. Obama has run a strong campaign. Yet he still remains a relatively unknown quantity to many in his own party. He has been wounded by his former pastor's inflammatory remarks, his and his wife's own ill considered comments, and his association in Chicago with a 1960s radical and a notorious political fixer.
What remains to be disclosed? Probably, nothing. But if there is something more, Clinton would be foolish to leave the nominating race before it might come to public view. There is nothing wrong with sustaining herself as a strong alternative candidate — all the way to the convention itself — on the chance that Obama might self destruct.
Clinton is running out of campaign money, reportedly being $20 million in the hole as of last weekend. She apparently has made multimillion-dollar loans to the campaign to keep it afloat.
But that is not necessarily as serious as it might seem. Obama already has intimated that, if nominated, he would be open to helping Hillary pay off her campaign debt. If she is not nominated, and is stuck with a residual campaign debt, Clinton nonetheless will remain the senator from New York. A dozen phone calls and a few Wall Street and business-community fundraising events, post-election, should be able to retire the debt in its entirety. It would be a problem if she represented South Dakota. Representing New York, no problem.
I strongly support Obama. But if, improbably, I were counseling Clinton, I would advise her to hang in there, run a positive campaign in the five remaining primaries, bargain hard over Michigan and Florida, and keep her candidacy alive until the eve of Democrats' August convention in Denver.
If, by then, no mistake or disclosure had wounded Obama seriously, she should make a graceful concession speech before the convention and raise her arms aloft with Obama for benefit of both media and the electorate. That would launch the convention on a positive note of unity. It also would provide her with a jumping-off place for national campaigning this fall, on behalf of Obama, and a platform for a future presidential candidacy, if she sought it.
I want Obama both to be nominated and elected president. But there is no reason Clinton should be pushed prematurely off a stage on which her vote-getting power has earned her a place.
Meantime, there are congressional races
I believe the Democratic presidential nominee is likely to defeat Sen. John McCain handily. McCain has not yet defined himself for the electorate and, at this late date, lacks a firm base in his own Republican Party. President Bush's low approval ratings do not automatically rub off on McCain. But they are not helping him. McCain, meantime, clearly is uncomfortable trying to find a proper yet respectful distance from the expiring administration.
In congressional races, there is little good news for Republicans thus far. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia went so far last week as to call for an "emergency members-only meeting" of House Republicans to discuss "a catastrophic collapse of trust in Republicans."
Democrats recently took two previously Republican House seats — formerly held by retired Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and retired Louisiana Rep. Richard Baker. The losses, in normally conservative districts, appear to be omens of November outcomes. Recent national polling data show Democrats generically favored over Republicans, 50 percent to 32 percent, in this fall's congressional elections. That margin is comparable to the one prevailing during President Nixon's Watergate crisis.
Six Republican Senate seats were lost in 2006. Race-by-race analysis in 2008 points to Democratic gains of another couple seats this fall. Should the Democratic presidential candidate defeat McCain, and the present congressional outlook hold, Democrats in the White House and on Capitol Hill would be able to dominate the public agenda, if not pass all their legislative proposals. Their victory would not approach the magnitude of President Johnson's landslide 1964 victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater, which made possible 1965 passage of historic Great Society legislation. But it put Democrats unmistakeably in charge.
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