Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama won; they and their party lost. Only John McCain won--big time. Here's why.
Clinton lost because her delegate difficulty has intensified, not eased; her negative attacks have demeaned her, inviting a counterattack and providing fodder for the Republicans; and she can "win" only using skulduggery at the Democratic convention that will alienate the mass of Obama supporters without whose votes she cannot possibly prevail in the presidential election itself.
It's the delegate math, stupid. After three victories Tuesday, including a thumping one in Ohio, Clinton only clawed back a net 11 delegates. (This count will worsen for her once the Texas caucus results come in.) According to Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, to beat back Obama among pledged delegates, Clinton now needs an average 26-point victory in the remaining 12 primaries and caucuses. His lead in pledged delegates is 144 (realclearpolitics.com). To overtake him, therefore, Clinton will need to win 378 of the 611 delegates in the remaining primaries--a Herculean task that will be made feasible only by a major Obama gaffe or scandal rather than anything she can do.
Negative attacks do work; people get the politics they deserve. Clinton won not by projecting her vision but by destroying his charisma. 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 Obama's character, experience and readiness to be commander in chief. It was a more subliminal and sophisticated repackaging of Bill Clinton's warning that electing Obama--with an exotic name and Muslim middle name--was a risky roll of the dice. The controversy over the North American Free Trade Agreement--"wink, wink" to Canadians--and questionable ties to a real estate dealer in Chicago who went on criminal trial the day before the primaries added to the unease and foreboding. At a time of anxiety and uncertainty--personal, national and global--voters chose to play safe.
Having found her voice in New Hampshire for her first comeback, Clinton accidentally stumbled into her clinching meta-narrative in Ohio and Texas for the second dramatic rescue of her near-death campaign: She is a fighter and will fight relentlessly on behalf of the majority who have lost out under the current administration. This gives her a unifying core theme, rallies the base, brings focus and discipline to the campaign, and keeps her team on message.
While some voters will recoil from the negative attacks, most tolerate them knowing the eventual nominee will be subjected to worse by the Republicans. If Obama does not have the toughness to withstand such attacks and counterpunch, he should exit the presidential bullpen. Had Obama attacked earlier, he would have undermined his defining message of hope and healing. Now it will count as self-defense. Having taunted him as too soft to take on McCain, she has directly provoked him into a tougher attack on her. The primary arithmetic still favors him but will not suffice. His inability to close the deal and win big states is a major weakness.
Obama must focus the searchlight relentlessly on a fatal flaw in Clinton's campaign that is as bad as his failure to deliver an electoral coup de grace. While her 20-point advantages vanished or halved within two weeks of the serious campaigning, there has yet to be a serious attack on her history, record and credibility so far. Obama is demanding that the media focus on Clinton's evasive delaying tactics on releasing tax details and the list of donors to Bill Clinton's presidential library and other activities. But just what is Clinton referring to when she makes her claim to have 35 years of experience? Why won't they release White House papers to back her claims? Some of the absent corroboration is laughable, for example, the claim that she helped to bring about peace to Northern Ireland. And how about a direct and targeted comparison of both candidates--their property dealings and legal problems?
Obama needs to go after Clinton to puncture her carefully constructed public persona and remind voters of past scandals and problems. His campaign needs its own attack ads ridiculing her propensity to play "victim in chief"; raising questions about whether her temperament and demeanor are presidential given her gushing, hectoring, mocking and complaining personas; and puncturing her claims to lifelong experience as a fairy tale. And Obama needs to say emphatically that under no circumstances will he be a vice-presidential also-ran to rid voters of the delusion that they can have both. If he doesn't, he risks becoming history.
But if he does, he also risks gutting the Democratic Party. Clinton can legitimately claim now to have public backing for her campaign to carry on, unfavorable electoral arithmetic notwithstanding. Neither has reason to quit. In the meantime, racial, ethnic, gender and class divisions will intensify. The deepening hostility and mutual contempt will prolong an increasingly bitter civil war among Democrats that could alienate half the voters from the losing candidate's camp and leave the eventual nominee mortally wounded. 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 energized by having two great candidates. Around three-quarters of them said they would be happy with either as the nominee. By now that figure has been reduced to about 40 percent.
Based on demographics, the likely results in the significant contests to come will be: Wyoming (March 8, 18 delegates, Obama); Mississippi (March 11, 40, Obama); Pennsylvania (April 22, 187, Clinton); West Virginia (May 13, 39, Clinton); North Carolina (May 6, 134, Obama); Oregon (May 20, 65, Obama); and Indiana (May 6, 84, tie). A de facto stalemate by the end of April-May will mean the contest is decided on the convention floor in Denver, Colo., in August.
If strong-arm tactics in the convention lead to super-delegates overturning Obama's lead in pledged delegates, votes and states, his outraged supporters will abandon the party in droves. If the nomination is awarded to Obama without counting the disqualified Michigan and Florida results, many Clinton supporters and voters from those states will be sufficiently antagonized to walk away from the party.
The party has permitted a state of confusion to arise that now looks set to guarantee a powerful sense of grievance among one-half of Democratic voters. Any party so politically inept and organizationally incompetent 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 began brewing on Feb. 19, simmered and boiled over on March 4. The party elders heard the red phone ringing for two weeks. No one answered.