(For the latest on the Clinton campaign's decision to endorse Obama Saturday, see this post).
With Barack Obama's loss in South Dakota and win in Montana on Tuesday night, the primaries and caucuses are over. The senator from Illinois who ran an unconventional movement-esque campaign of and for change is the winner. He has bagged the most voter-determined delegates and a majority of the superdelegates commitments, enough to declare victory. The nation is heading toward a general election featuring a dramatic face-off between a progressive who opposed the Iraq war and a conservative who was a cheerleader for the war. A fresh face versus a Washington veteran. A onetime community organizer versus a former war hero. A 46-year-old black man versus a 71-year-old white man. Assuming the Democratic mantle, Obama declared in a speech before thousands in St. Paul, Minnesota, "This year must be different than all the rest." It will be. And hours earlier, John McCain, delivering a speech in New Orleans, used the word "change" almost three dozen times. But before the Obama-McCain clash throttles up, there is one last item of business for the Democrats: Hillary Clinton must concede.
Can Clinton harbor any hope of nullifying the verdict of the millions of voters who flocked to the primaries and caucuses in record numbers? That would be the political equivalent of nuclear warfare. To do so, Clinton, who spent the end of her campaign positioning herself as a count-every-vote champion, would have to become an anti-democratic renegade, challenging the outcome of the voting and confronting the party leadership, which has signaled its preference for allowing the pledged-delegate count to determine the final outcome.
On Tuesday, AP reported Clinton had told New York lawmakers she was open to being Obama's veep choice--a sign she won't push the button. And in her speech to supporters in New York on Tuesday night, Clinton was conciliatory toward Obama. She declared, "we stayed the course," depicting her hang-in-there strategy of the past two months as a cause, not a political tactic. She made no mention of the superdelegates, dropping her usual pitch for their support. But in a combative tone, she proclaimed, "I want the 18 million people who voted for me to be respected and to be heard." Heard? Respected? In what way? And by whom? By Obama? That was a statement ready-made for interpretation by pundits and analysts. "Where do we go from here?" she asked. She answered, "I will be making no decisions tonight." Speaking to her supporters, she said, I want to hear from you." And she noted that in the "coming days" she will be consulting with party leaders.
In the dwindling weeks of the race, she played it both ways: good Democrat and bad Democrat. The good Clinton ceased her attacks on Obama and stopped questioning whether he was qualified to be commander in chief. Yet, at the same time, the bad Clinton raised questions about the legitimacy of Obama's win. Using fuzzy and misleading math, she claimed she had won more popular votes than Obama. Campaigning in Florida, she noted that its residents had "learned the hard way what happens when...the candidate with fewer votes is declared the winner." At the Democratic Party's rules committee, Harold Ickes, a top Clinton adviser, angrily claimed that four of her delegates had been "hijacked" and threatened that Clinton would appeal the committee's compromise decision at the convention. Ickes' mad-as-hell performance, no doubt, reinforced the view held by some Clinton's supporters that Obama's triumph has come--at least, in part--as a result of unfairness and anti-Clinton bias.
Still, ever since the May 6 primaries in North Carolina and Indiana, Clinton has managed to walk a careful line, keeping her post-primary options open without doing anything that could directly undermine an Obama candidacy in the general election. That allowed her to stay in the hunt--in case something precipitous happened to alter the race. It also permitted her to rack up a few more primary wins and continue to show her strength among blue-collar (or white) voters--which she could point to when arguing to superdelegates that she would be the better candidate to take on McCain in the fall.
But she can straddle no longer. On Tuesday night, MSNBC reported that Clinton wanted a private sit-down with Obama before conceding or embracing Obama as the nominee. Many party leaders--including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid--have said they have no patience for drawing out the race beyond the last primaries. Democratic figures--especially those backing Obama--have in recent weeks deliberately not called on Clinton to abandon her campaign. They have not been eager to force her out. But such courtesy will evaporate faster than desert rain in the "coming days."
It could well be that party leaders--out of kindness, respect, and worry (over whether her supporters will eventually swing behind Obama)--afford Clinton a few days to process her defeat. After all, this historic race was damn close, as so few nomination contests are. But this is politics, not therapy. So the grace period won't be long.
Understandably, the Senator from New York who almost became the first woman to win a major party's presidential nomination has put off this decision for as long as she could. And her performance in the final weeks of the campaign has strengthened her future presidential prospects. Should Obama lose to McCain, Clinton and her supporters could use these late-contest wins to bolster an I-told-you-so argument that would come in handy for the 2012 campaign. But if she does not play nice soon, she puts her future within the party at great risk.
All things come to an end--even tight and historic presidential nomination contests. Wounds are tended to; they heal. Bad feelings subside. Deals are cut, if need be. Political parties can--and do--come together. And heading into what promises to be a damn tough campaign, Obama will need Clinton and her followers. In his victory speech, Obama hailed Clinton and exclaimed, "Let us begin to work together." As a calculating politician, Clinton can probably be expected to do the right thing. But with the Clintons--politicians of unusual fortitude and audacity--you never know. Now that all the party's polls are closed, the moment belongs to Obama. He is the champion. He has made history. He has become the strongest progressive Democratic nominee in a generation. And, for Hillary Clinton, the clock has run out.