06/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Does Hillary Want? That's Easy: Respect

I don't know why I was surprised by all the invective aimed at Hillary Clinton today, but I was. After all, yesterday we were told specifically by numerous members of her campaign that her speech last night in New York would not be a concession speech. It was, however, a conciliatory speech, one which started with a tribute to Barack Obama. And I listened to it and read it, and tried to figure out what was so objectionable in it. Was it because she didn't concede? Was it because she talked about the strength of her campaign, making a point of noting all the ways in which she had been successful? Was it because she played "Simply the Best" and "Won't Back Down" in the background? Was it because after months and months of a long and drawn-out campaign — not to mention all the griping of an exasperated punditocracy — she still hadn't stepped down?

Various people will cite various reasons, and bundle in with that the sanctity of the Democratic party. How could she throw aside this opportunity to gracefully begin the healing process? How could she ignore the math — again! — and blithely behave like a winner, not a loser? How could she continue to disregard the wishes of everyone around her, everyone who mattered? Well, hold on a second. The way I see it, it seems to me that it's precisely for those people that she did not bow out, but rather chose to acknowledge her battles and let everyone know exactly what she'd won.

She telegraphed her reason clearly, in the middle of her speech, when she acknowledged the big question: "What does Hillary want?" In addition to citing a Democrat-wide laundry list of goals, she said this: "I want the nearly 18 million Americans who voted for me to be respected, to be heard and no longer to be invisible."

That matters, because, well, they have been. The unrelenting calls for her to exit the race, the wondering about why Obama couldn't close the deal (which assumes that a vote for Hillary Clinton must really be a vote against Obama), the dismissal of her supporters as racists or irrational feminists or uneducated rednecks, the dissension about how to seat Florida and Michigan, the fretting about the campaign dragging on and the damage it might do to the party, which went back to the calls for her to exit the race — all of these were tantamount to saying she had no right be there. But people had voted for her, and despite the momentum that had swelled for Obama — and, yes, despite the incredible mismanagement of her campaign and the head-bonking gaffes like Bosnia and the RFK remark and the unpredictable howlings of her husband — they continued voting for her, bringing her a surprising round of victories in the last round of primaries and breathing life into the campaign that so many people desperately wanted to be dead.

But they weren't all the people, they were just the people who were shouting the loudest. The fact was, no matter how you slice it, almost 18 million people did, actually, affirmatively cast a vote for her (17,461,810 or 17,790,119, depending). And not all of them were happy about how their candidate was being treated; this was evident last week at the Rules & Bylaws meeting in D.C. I'm not saying that every single person chanting angrily was right; I'm just saying that where there are people chanting angrily, that should maybe be taken as a sign that something's amiss.

To me, it made perfect sense for Clinton to acknowledge these people in her speech, and proudly. And why not? It's pretty amazing that she could thank "women in their nineties who came out to see me because they were born before women could vote." It's pretty amazing that she could stand there as a person who could legitimately say that she had won contests "from the Alleghenies to the Ozarks to the Everglades," and still be the candidate who was perceived by her supporters to have been treated so shabbily by the "pundits and naysayers" that they all booed. Where there is that kind of feeling, does anyone really think that it would be as easy as reassigning her support?

It might have been different if Clinton hadn't been the target of so much scorn and dismissal and derision — again, I'm not saying some of it wasn't earned, but I am saying that it changed the dynamic. Clinton was known as determined and dogged and defiant because she wasn't given any other option — there is no other option when you have to keep justifying why you're not dropping out even as voters keep voting for you. It seems a little unfair to discount and dismiss that constituency, and then be outraged that it was not neatly turned over in an obedient block. To me, it seems to make more sense that an acknowledgment would first be made, that Clinton's race and the people who gravitated her way were legitimate, and important.

It should be noted, importantly, that Barack Obama seemed to get this. His speech last night was graceful and glowing, recognizing her path and what she'd achieved, and including her supporters in that. Last night on CNN Gloria Borger said she'd have been annoyed if she were Obama, but why? I noted earlier that Obama didn't seem bothered, nor should he have been having just won the brass ring; if ever there's a time for magnanimity, it's then (lesser instincts are impelled to stick it to the opposition).

And, along with magnanimity comes practicality: The fact is, Obama didn't walk away with this race. He definitely won, both in super and pledged delegates, and would have even if Florida and Michigan had been seated as Clinton wished. Even so, he knows that Clinton's strength corresponded to his weaknesses, and vice versa; he knows that many of her supporters felt alienated from the party; he knows that her genuine and real support in this race can only be helpful.

He also knows, as he said tonight on ABC and NBC News, that running a race, hard, for 18 months can be habit-forming, and that exits aren't always seamless and easy, and that sometimes a little time can go a long way. If Obama knows this — and he seems to, in his typically thoughtful and empathic way, then why is it so hard for everyone else?

Let me just reiterate: Yes, she lost. And yes, she started out in a near-coronation and screwed a lot up very badly on a number of fronts, so that she — what was that word? — ah, yes, lost. I get it! And I get that party unity demands that she fall in line. It just didn't seem to me that she wasn't, or wouldn't; indeed, it was something she clearly signaled she would gladly do, both yesterday and in today's speech before AIPAC, which was strongly supportive of Obama.

And after all that, she's conceding on Saturday, surprising no one (come on, did anyone really think she was going to take it all the way to the convention? That variable was always the supers, and they broke pretty decisively). Of course she was going to concede, and concede gracefully; but first, to borrow a line from a play about the kind of person she purported to represent, "Attention must be paid."

On January 7th, the night before the New Hampshire primary, I attended a rally for Hillary Clinton that another journalist had referred to as "The Last Supper." She'd already lost Iowa, and everyone thought she would lose New Hampshire. A full five months later, she and her supporters were still hanging on, until the very last primary contest. Then and only then could the Democrats be absolutely sure that Barack Obama was their nominee, and when that had been established, Clinton chose to open her final primary season speech this way:

I want to start tonight by congratulating Senator Obama and his supporters on the extraordinary race that they have run. Senator Obama has inspired so many Americans to care about politics and empowered so many more to get involved, and our party and our democracy is stronger and more vibrant as a result. So, we are grateful, and it has been an honor to contest these primaries with him, just as it is an honor to call him my friend. And tonight, I would like all of us to take a moment to recognize him and his supporters for all they have accomplished.

It doesn't seem like so much to give her that moment, too.