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Hillary Clinton’s Duty to Quit

One meme that has emerged in recent days is the idea that Hillary Clinton’s remaining in the race, and especially her negative attacks on Barack Obama, will seriously damage the Democratic Party and make Obama damaged goods in the fall. John Aravosis is one of the more passionate advocates of this position.

Well, come Wednesday, if Hillary doesn’t win 65% of the delegates in Ohio and Texas, and still insists on staying in the race and ripping our party in two, it will be time to start treating candidate Clinton with the same golden rule she is using for candidate Obama. Why? Not for revenge, but for the sake of our party and the fall election. Hillary and her campaign are in the process of turning Obama into damaged goods in the fall. They didn’t have to go there, but beating Obama became more important to them than beating John McCain. So, the first question for Hillary come Wednesday, should she decide to continue risking our chances of winning in the fall even though the math says it’s over, will be the question she’s asking Obama today: What negatives will the Republicans throw against you in the fall? And as I’ve noted repeatedly, there are some negatives out there that most of you don’t even know about – but everyone in Washington knows about them, in detail. That’s because even Democrats who don’t love Hillary, don’t go there, for the good of the party. On Wednesday, the good of the party may dictate that we do.

To be sure, this was written before Clinton’s victories in Ohio and Texas. Since she didn’t come even close to the 65 percent margin, though, the logic remains intact.

Hilzoy is less vociferous but nonetheless allows that “if, when the results come in, it is still overwhelmingly unlikely that Clinton wins, I hope they put the interests of the party and the nation above their own.”

Marc Cooper, writing at HuffPo, argues that the best Clinton can do at this point is steal the election.

For two or three days, the Clinton campaign will spin itself -and the media–silly, breathlessly celebrating her overwhelming victories in Rhode Island and Ohio and her squeaker in Texas.

After the confetti is swept and the champagne bottles are tossed a more sober reality will take hold. Not just that her net gain of delegates this week will be, at most, in the single digits. But worse. There is no plausible scenario in which Clinton can win the nomination. At least not democratically.

He’s outraged at the negativity of Clinton’s campaign and especially the infamous 3 a.m. ad, “a detestable spot that, stripped to its core message, warned that if Obama were selected, your children could be murdered in their beds in the middle of the night.” But, as Josh Marshall reminds us, that’s politics.

The Clinton campaign got rough and nasty over the last week-plus. And they got results. That may disgust you or it may inspire you with confidence in Hillary’s abilities as a fighter. But wherever you come down on that question is secondary to the fact that that’s how campaign’s work. Opponents get nasty. And what we’ve seen over the last week is nothing compared to what Barack Obama would face this fall if he hangs on and wins the nomination.

So I think the big question is, can he fight back? Can he take this back to Hillary Clinton, demonstrate his ability to take punches and punch back? By this I don’t mean that he’s got to go ballistic on her or go after Bill’s business deals or whatever else her vulnerabilities might be. Candidates fight in different ways and if they’re good candidates in ways that play to their strengths and cohere with their broader message. But he’s got to show he can take this back to Hillary and not get bloodied and battered when an opponent decides to lower the boom. That will obviously determine in a direct sense how he fares in the coming primaries and caucuses. And Obama’s people are dead right when they say, he doesn’t even have to do that well from here on out to end this with a substantial pledged delegate margin.

At the end of the day, the winner of the pledged delegate race has the strongest claim to the nomination. Everything else is spin. But it’s a strong claim, not incontestable.

I’ve got no dog in this fight. I find Obama more likable but am probably closer to Clinton on policy. I think Obama would be harder to beat in the fall but don’t want to wager a Clinton presidency on that hunch.

Yes, Clinton has run a nasty, desperate campaign the last few weeks. Given that she was in fact desperate, that’s hardly surprising.

Further, while the delegate math is against her, it’s not as if Obama has a commanding lead. Indeed, she’d probably be winning this thing if Florida and Michigan had held their primaries when they were supposed to; she might even have it wrapped up by now.

Clinton’s not, in the way that Mike Huckabee was yesterday morning, an annoying spoiler. She’s won all the big states thus far except Illinois, which Obama represents in the Senate, and is within a hundred delegates of him. Nor is there anything “undemocratic” about pinning her hopes on the superdelegates. Or, at least, nothing unsporting. The superdelegates have been part of the Democratic nominating rules for several cycles now and it’s their job to use their judgment to pick the best nominee if no overwhelming winner emerges from the primaries. Getting the uncontested Michigan and Florida delegates to suddenly count while the nomination is in doubt would be “stealing” the nomination in my view; persuading the superdelegates to do what they’re supposed to do would not.

Nor am I entirely convinced that keeping this thing going is bad news for her party. While a prolonged battle between the Democrats, especially if it leads to a nasty convention fight, bloodies the eventual winner, it also sucks the oxygen from McCain’s message. He’s a footnote to the race until he’s got an opponent.

Yes, the nominee will get hammered and attacks that the Republicans will use against them will get trotted out early. While that may be harmful in the short run, though, it gets to big shots fired early and makes them less effective for the stretch run. The eventual winner will have emerged battle tested and probably stronger. [UPDATE: LizardBreath is hosting a discussion on this very topic.]

The chief down side, really, for the Democrats is that it creates a three pronged battle, with Obama and Clinton attacking each other and McCain attacking both of them. If Clinton dropped out and made Obama the presumptive nominee, he could spend his huge treasure chest on ads attacking McCain and not have to worry about his left flank. Conversely, though, McCain has to hedge his bets on a much smaller budget.

UPDATE: Jeff Dobbs calls for Obama to drop out (via Glenn Reynolds). Meanwhile, TPM Cafe Talk poster CSCS explains why “Both Obama’s and Clinton’s supporters must now drop out of the race” (via David Kurtz).

UPDATE: On a more serious note, historian Eric Rauchway sees some strong parallels between this race and the battle between Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft that doomed the Republicans in 1912. It’s an interesting read but I ultimately don’t buy it: We’re not talking about the party elite taking a nomination from an overwhelming popular favorite. Clinton and Obama are virtually neck-and-neck, with the latter winning more states but the former winning the bigger ones.

UPDATE: Alex Massie dubs the enterprise “Super-Delegate Quidditch” and quotes a friend who uses another sports analogy:

To suggest that the winner of the pledged delegates should get all the superdelegates is to ignore the rules of the game. That’s like saying had whoever gained the most total yards in a football game should be the winner, not the person with the most points. You may not like the rules, but to steal a line from the Big Lebowski — this is not Vietnam, there are rules!

Of course, Clinton’s favorite game is Calvinball.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Anderson says:

    A judicious post — well said.

    I think “electability” is up in the air. If Hillary’s the Dem candidate and can focus on the ill-effects of 4 more years of Republican rule in the White House, I think that she can beat McCain, albeit narrowly.

    She also benefits from the “underdog” narrative that Americans love, which is quite a trick for the onetime putative front-runner.

    And while I still have grave doubts about the competence of her campaign staff, she has one thing going for her that I’m not sure Obama does: she *wants* this. Big time. And she doesn’t see herself coming back and taking it in 2012 if she loses this time. For that matter, I doubt McCain wants it as badly, either.

    The effectiveness of sheer ambition and lust for power should not be underrated.

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  2. Dave Schuler says:

    The idea that either Bill or Hillary Clinton doesn’t completely conflate the good of the party with his and her own good is a notion I would like to see some compelling evidence for.

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  3. Anderson says:

    The idea that either Bill or Hillary Clinton doesn’t completely conflate the good of the party with his and her own good

    As opposed to which other politician? Come now, sir.

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  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I certainly think it’s true of the present incumbent. As to all politicians? Who can say?

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  5. yetanotherjohn says:

    Neither candidate is going to ‘express the will of the people’ by locking up the nomination with primary/caucus awarded delegates. Obama is ahead by 0.006% in the popular vote and about 2% in the delegate count. If Hillary pulls out PA, then she is likely to have the lead in popular vote. And I personally want to see every Obama supporter who complained about the 2000 election to have to eat humble pie whenever they talk about Hillary ‘stealing’ the election.

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  6. Tlaloc says:

    So, the first question for Hillary come Wednesday, should she decide to continue risking our chances of winning in the fall even though the math says it’s over, will be the question she’s asking Obama today: What negatives will the Republicans throw against you in the fall? And as I’ve noted repeatedly, there are some negatives out there that most of you don’t even know about – but everyone in Washington knows about them, in detail.

    I call BS. There is no human being on earth who has been more thoroughly exposed and exploited than Hillary Clinton. There are no more secrets in there because the republicans made a cottage industry of looting her garbage, not to mention crafting attacks from whole cloth.

    This is the one great advantage Hillary has- the right has *nothing* left to throw at her. What can they say? She’s a murderer? Already done that. Pervert? Been there. Traitor? Heard that every day six times before breakfast during the ninties. They’ve tried everything.

    Meanwhile Obama has been hit by nothing. Every attack on him will be fresh and new and repeated by the papers again anad again (because as much as they like to build people up, they seel better when tearing them down from a great height).

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  7. bornonthefourth says:

    It really is like sports or sports betting. Key stats,You don’t need to win every game to win the Championship.Giants. You do have to connect with the base like home field advantage on Halloween to overcome the points.Bears. All the cheating ruins the future. Pats. A mud horse is always in the money.Devonadale. All the money means nothing.Yankees
    We love you Bret Farve, a real hero, Good luck Packers

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  8. [...] Joyner gathered plenty of discussion from the netroots asking Clinton drop out. The worry is while Obama and Clinton hammer on each [...]

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  9. bains says:

    Minor point, but one that constantly amuses me.

    Hilzoy: …it is still overwhelmingly unlikely that Clinton wins, I hope they put the interests of the party and the nation above their own.

    The interest of the nation is, of course, dictated by a ‘Democratic party’ of Hilzoy’s design.

    Amusing that a pundit refuses to acknowledge their own political proclivities, passes off as dispassionate observation partisan claptrap. And yeah, folks from both sides foist this canard.

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