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Hillary Agonistes: Why Doesn't She Concede?

First Posted: 05/21/08 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 01:30 PM ET

Hillary In Low Light

As the odds get longer and longer, the obvious question is: Why doesn't Hillary Clinton gracefully concede defeat and throw her support behind her party's defacto nominee, Barack Obama?

As my colleague at Salon, Walter Shapiro puts it: "What motivates her? Is it ambition, pride, feminism, vindication, public service or ideology? Or is it some combination of all of them?"

Mary Sanchez, writing for the Kansas City Star, is more blunt: Hillary should scram:

'A lady always knows when to leave the party.' Or so my mother used to say. It's time for Hillary Clinton to take a tip and leave - not the party, of course, but the presidential race....She should save her political future and concede the nomination to Obama. The Democratic Party's chances to win the White House are at stake now, not just her own career. Or her husband's ambitions, if it is he who is pushing her to continue in a race she cannot win.

The decision, Peter Keating, former senior writer for politics at George who
now covers sports business for ESPN, suggests is "how much she wants to hurt Obama. And when she equated 'white Americans' with 'hard-working Americans' in attacking Obama last week, she signaled that she's still willing to campaign destructively. As long as Hillary is playing with her knife collection, she can make Obama bleed."

Michael Crowley has his own interesting take:

[O]ne gets the overall impression that the Clintons feel Obama shouldn't be here in the first place--that this 'young man's' very claim to power is itself questionable. In this sense, the Clintons may be victims of their own sense of victimhood. The vileness of the Clintons' past enemies seems to have convinced them that their enemies always are, by definition, in the wrong. And that Obama's candidacy is almost like another illegitimate attempt to steal a White House that, in some sense, belongs to them.

Speculating on the Clintons' motives and what they hope to achieve has become the media parlor game of the moment. To add my own two cents worth, I suspect, but have no way of knowing, that she is:

*Praying for a devastating anti-Obama story -- Jeremiah Wright-Tony Rezko squared - to surface and turn the Illinois Senator into an unacceptable candidate in the eyes of the media and convention delegates. This is clearly a long-shot, and presumably her aides have no such story in reserve or it would have already seen the light of day.

*Convinced, correctly, that after running a lousy campaign she has finally hit her stride as reflected in her solid victories in Texas, Ohio and, on Tuesday, in West Virginia. These victories, in her eyes and in the eyes of many of her aides, demonstrate that Obama is an empty suit weighed down with general election liabilities that are only coming to light at the close of the nomination process.

*Psychically unable to accept defeat -- after first believing she was the anointed candidate, and then, after losing her superstar status, clawing her way back into contention in an extraordinary display of grit.

Opinions on this subject are a dime a dozen. Just go to RealClearPolitics and get your fill for free.

The more important issue is that Hillary's continued battle for the nomination, no matter how futile and no matter what the motivation, has consequences. One of the best analyses of the likely consequences is by June Kronholz in the Wall Street Journal.

"What is clear," Kronholz writes, is that "when challengers refused to concede and instead pursued the nomination into the convention," their party's nominee got beaten in November. She cites Ronald Reagan's 1976 challenge to Gerald Ford, Senator Edward M. ('Teddy') Kennedy's 1980 bid to unseat Jimmy Carter, and Senator Gary Hart's insurgency against Walter Mondale in 1984.

Ford, Carter and Mondale all faced uphill general election struggles, no matter what kind of primary fights they had, while this year the "Democrats have the electoral winds at their back," she notes. But, Kronholz concludes, "a long, ugly nominating battle that splits the party still could cost it the White House."

For Hillary, there may be very little downside in staying in the race until the bitter end, or at least until the final delegates are selected on June 4.

Under once scenario - Obama gets the nomination but loses to John McCain - Clinton could begin her 2012 campaign on November 5, 2008, as a vindicated politician, using the narrative that she was the better candidate.

Under the alternative scenario - Hillary promptly concedes and Obama wins the presidency - she may well have lost her one shot at the highest office in the land, and the White House and the power, prestige and status that goes with it, will be forever out of her reach - a intensely painful prospect.

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