There are two compelling story lines from last Tuesday's four contests between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama: never count a Clinton out and never underestimate the capacity of a party to self-destruct.
While Mr. Obama bounced back in Wyoming, it's clear negative attacks work, and the people get the politics they deserve. Clinton won not by projecting her vision but destroying his charisma. The strategy will be repeated, sharpened and reciprocated. It 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.
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 more subliminal and 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 amplified by attacks on Mr. Obama's honesty over discussions between a senior economic adviser and a Canadian consular official.
The third prong of the attack was allegations of a shady relationship with a Chicago real estate dealer who went on trial in Chicago one day before the primary votes. The attacks were fanned by complaints about the media bias in fawning over Mr. Obama.
The result was Team Obama was entirely on the defensive in its own half of the playing field. A match cannot be won from there.
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: 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, 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 Mr. Obama does not have the toughness to withstand such attacks and counterpunch, he should exit the presidential ring.
Had Mr. Obama attacked earlier, he would have undermined his defining message of hope and healing. Now it will count as self-defence. The primary arithmetic still favours him, but this will not suffice any longer. His inability to close the deal and win big states are two big weaknesses.
Signs are emerging of an Obama fightback. He is insisting that the media put equal focus on both camps, starting with Ms. Clinton's evasions and delaying tactics on tax details and donors lists. Just what is Ms. Clinton's 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?
Mr. Obama must concentrate a searching scrutiny on a fatal flaw in the Clinton campaign even worse than his failure to deliver an electoral coup de grâce: her 20-point advantages vanish or halve within two weeks of the serious campaigning -- and this without any serious attacks on her history, record and credibility so far.
Mr. Obama needs to go after Ms. Clinton to puncture her carefully constructed public persona and remind voters of past scandals and problems. He needs his own attack ads making fun of her victim-in-chief history when she blames everyone but herself for all the Clintons' problems; raise questions about her temperament and demeanour being presidential enough by broadcasting her gushing, hectoring, mocking and complaining moods, asking which persona would answer the phone at 3 a.m.; and puncture her claims to lifelong experience as a fairytale. He needs to reopen old wounds about the Clintons' legacy to establish firmly in voters' minds what another four years of them in the White House will do to the country. And he needs to say emphatically that under no circumstances will he be a vice-presidential also ran to rid voters of the illusion that they can have both. If he doesn't, he will be history.
If he does, he risks gutting the Democratic Party. Ms. Clinton can legitimately claim now to have public backing for her campaign to carry on, the unfavourable electoral arithmetic notwithstanding. A de facto stalemate in the remaining significant states by the end of April-May means the contest will be decided on the convention floor in Denver in August.
In the meantime, racial, ethnic, gender and class divisions will intensify. 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 around 40 per cent.
If strong-arm tactics in the convention lead to super-delegates overturning Mr. Obama's lead in pledged delegates, votes and states, his outraged supporters will abandon the party in droves. If the nomination is awarded to Mr. 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 which 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. Can the Democratic elders hear the red phone ringing?