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The Hindu
Monday, March 10, 2008

On March 4, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama won; both they and their party all lost; John McCain won, big time. Here's why.

Ms Clinton lost because her delegate difficulty intensifies, not eases; her negative attacks demean her, invite a counter-attack and provide fodder for the Republicans; and she can "win" only by convention skulduggery that will alienate th e mass of Obama supporters without whose votes she cannot possibly prevail in the general election.

It's the delegate maths, stupid. After three victories on Tuesday, including a thumping one in Ohio, Ms Clinton clawed back a net 11 delegates. This will reduce to single figures after the Texas caucus results in which Mr. Obama has a handy lead. According to Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, to beat back Mr. Obama among pledged delegates, Ms Clinton now needs an average 26-point victory in the remaining 12 primaries and caucuses - something she hasn't achieved once so far. To overtake his 144 pledged delegates lead (realclearpolitics.com), Ms Clinton must win 378 of the 611 delegates in the remaining primaries - a herculean task that is feasible only with a major Obama gaffe or scandal. A week after Ohio and Texas, he will be back where he was on the delegate lead.

People get the politics they deserve. A fusillade of negative attacks by Ms Clinton on Mr. Obama worked. She won not by projecting her vision but by kneecapping the most gifted, talented and inspiring politician in a generation. The strategy will be repeated, sharpened and reciprocated.

The notorious 3 a.m. red phone ad was the decisive moment in the campaign, sowing sufficient doubts in voters' minds about Mr. Obama's character, experience and readiness to be commander-in-chief. It was a subliminal and more sophisticated repackaging of Bill Clinton's warning that electing Mr. Obama - with an exotic name and Muslim middle name - was a risky roll of the dice. At a time of anxiety and uncertainty - personal, national and global - voters chose to play safe.

This was then amplified by attacks on Mr. Obama's honesty because a senior economic adviser was reported by a Canadian consular official in Chicago to have assured them that Mr. Obama's harsh rhetoric on the North American Free Trade Agreement was just campaign talk. Ohio has suffered more than most States and many of its people blame NAFTA for gutting their State's economy. This was doubly damaging to a campaign built on integrity. The Obama camp at first flatly denied that any meeting had taken place and was seemingly caught out in the lie when the memo written by the official was leaked to the Canadian media in Ottawa. But the Canadian embassy in Washington denied it initially as well. It appears that the adviser had a private meeting with the official without the knowledge, let alone the approval, of the Obama campaign. The adviser emphatically disputes the veracity of the account of the discussion. And, after the primary, Canadian newspapers reported that the Clinton team had also contacted Canadians with a similar message. But the damage to Mr. Obama was done, which the Canadian Prime Minister has described as unfair.

The third prong of the attack was allegation of a shady relationship with a property dealer, who went on trial in Chicago one day before the primary votes, who has donated generously to Mr. Obama and did him some questionable favours on property purchases. (He also has had links with the Clintons.) Mr. Obama has acknowledged that this was a serious political misjudgement.

The attacks were fanned by complaining about media bias, notably that the press had been too soft and star-struck to question Mr. Obama aggressively. The result was that in the final week of the campaign, Team Obama was entirely on the defensive as an aggressive Team Clinton made all the moves and set the agenda. Games are never won by playing the whole match in one's own half. Attacking forays have to be launched into the opponent's half for any goals to be scored.

The larger frame goes back to the question of a compelling meta-narrative. Having found her voice in New Hampshire, for her first comeback, Ms Clinton accidentally stumbled into her clinching meta-narrative in Ohio and Texas for the second dramatic rescue of her near- death campaign. Her latest message should have been her main meta-narrative all along: that she is a fighter and will fight relentlessly on behalf of the majority who have lost out under the present administration. This gives her a unifying core theme, rallies the base, brings focus and discipline to the campaign, keeps her team on message and provides the alibi for attacking Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama lost both in the results and in the manner in which Ms Clinton has wedged him into a tight corner. The primary arithmetic still favours him but will not suffice against justified doubts over his inability to close the deal and win big States. If he does retaliate, he undermines his core message of unity, healing and new politics. But if he fails to fight back, he will validate her charge that he isn't tough enough to take on Mr. McCain and he should exit the presidential bullpen.

Mr. Obama must focus the searchlight relentlessly on a flaw in the Clinton campaign as fatal as his failure to deliver an electoral coup de grace: her 20-point advantages vanished or halved within two weeks of serious campaigning even without attacks on her history, record and credibility. Mr. Obama is demanding that the media focus on Ms Clinton's evasions and delaying tactics on releasing 2006 tax details and the list of donors to Bill Clinton's presidential library and other activities. Just what is her actual experience in her 35-year claim? Why won't they release the White House papers to back her claims? Absent corroboration, some are laughable: for example, that she helped to bring about peace to Northern Ireland. How about a direct and targeted comparison of both candidates' property dealings and legal problems?

That is, Mr. Obama needs to puncture Ms Clinton's carefully constructed public persona and remind voters of past scandals and problems. They need their own attack ads ridiculing her victim-in-chief history when she blames everyone but herself for all the Clintons' problems; raising questions about whether her temperament and demeanour is presidential enough by broadcasting her gushing, hectoring, mocking, complaining and crying moods and asking which persona would answer the phone at 3 a.m.; and challenge her claims to lifelong experience. He needs to reopen all the familiar doubts about another Clinton administration and reassert his persona in order to reclaim the agenda. If he doesn't, he will be history.

If he does, however, he risks gutting the Democratic Party. After Tuesday's results, Ms Clinton can legitimately claim to have public backing for her campaign to carry on, the unfavourable electoral arithmetic notwithstanding. On the basis of the record and demographic contours of the States, the likely results in the significant contests to come will be: Mississippi (March 11, 40, BO); Pennsylvania (April 22, 187, HC); West Virginia (May 13, 39, HC); North Carolina (May 6, 134, BO); Oregon (May 20, 65, BO); and Indiana (May 6, 84, tie). If there is still de facto stalemate by the end of April and then May, as now seems likely, the contest might be decided on the convention floor in Denver in August.

In the meantime, racial, ethnic, gender and class divisions will only be heightened. What seemed exciting and was drawing millions of new and young voters into political engagement is turning into a protracted guerrilla war. At the start of the campaign, Democrats were energised by having two great candidates. Around three-quarters of them said they would be happy with either as the eventual nominee. By now, that figure has been reduced to around 40 per cent. If strong-arm tactics in the convention lead to super-delegates disregarding Mr. Obama's lead in pledged delegates, votes and States and awarding the nomination to Ms Clinton, his supporters will be outraged and abandon the party in droves. If the nomination is awarded to Mr. Obama without counting Michigan and Florida because the national party punished the two States for trying to move up the electoral calendar, many voters of those two States and large numbers of Clinton supporters will be sufficiently antagonised to walk away from the party.

The party has permitted a state of confusion to arise which now looks set to guarantee a powerful sense of grievance among one-half of Democratic voters. A politically inept and organisationally incompetent party deserves to lose. The Republicans can neither believe their luck nor contain their glee.

It was 3 a.m. Deep in the Democratic heartland, a crisis erupted on February 19, simmered and boiled over on March 4. The party elders heard the red phone ringing insistently for a fortnight. No one answered.


About the Author

Ramesh Thakur, former CIGI Distinguished Fellow

The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors and/or International Board of Governors.