Hillary Clinton's comments on Friday -- invoking Bobby Kennedy's assassination after the California primary in 1968 to shore up her argument that Democratic primaries are often unresolved in June -- were bone-headed on two scores.
First, the obvious. The analogy was in such poor taste that it, predictably, caused a furor that rolled through the long weekend, and obscured anything else Clinton might have said or done while campaigning in Puerto Rico -- even a bit of You Tube-worthy dancing. How did it happen? I get that she was almost certainly tired. I get that editorial boards can seem a little informal, and candidates are sometimes more expansive then in set "interviews." And I get that she'd said it before, and no one -- absolutely no one -- seemed to notice, let alone take exception or offense. But I still don't get it. During my years as a press secretary (including to Hillary's husband, both on the 1992 campaign and in the White House), I developed a powerful internal filter, which worked to strip all things "off message" from my thoughts before they came out of my mouth. It didn't always work, of course, and I said more than a few things I regretted. But "assassination" and "Bobby Kennedy" in the same sentence when discussing her reasons for staying in the race? That's a total head-scratcher. And for the moment anyway, it seems to have altered the dynamics of her finale. I'm pretty sure this isn't the kind of game-changer she had in mind.
But in addition to all that, Clinton's argument is wrong, historically and politically. Democratic presidential primaries never really last this long. True, Bill Clinton didn't have enough delegates to "go over the top" until June of 1992. But as soon as Paul Tsongas, the last serious candidate, dropped out on March 20, Bill Clinton became the presumptive nominee. Similarly, when Bobby Kennedy was shot on his way out of the a victory celebration in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, and died the next day, the campaign was not quite three months old, and only 13 states had held primaries. In other words, that race was far from over.
So if Clinton wants to keep on keeping on, as she clearly does, she should argue that this race is unprecedented, that at no time in history have two candidates been in a virtual tie after 48 states have held primaries or caucuses, and some 35 million people have weighed in. Since it's come this far, she might say, she should be allowed to see it through, until "every vote is counted," including those in Florida and Michigan. It is, after all, historic.
Instead, she's arguing precedent. And the most analogous race is not 1992 or 1968, but 1984. In that race, the establishment candidate and presumptive nominee got surprised in the early contests by a virtual unknown promising new ideas and a new generation of leadership. The frontrunner's lead evaporated, and he had to battle the challenger through a long primary season which didn't end until the last contests in early June. When the dust had settled, the two had an almost equal number of pledged delegates and votes. But a series of gaffes by the less experienced candidate -- as well as the establishment candidate's support among superdelegates -- allowed the latter to claim the nomination.
And after Walter Mondale beat Gary Hart, he went on to lose 49 states in November.