We know Hillary Clinton is smart, and we so can assume that for some time she has known, as well as anyone, that it is virtually impossible for her to become the Democratic nominee for President in 2008. So what could explain her continuing to battle, risking her party's approbation?
We fear there is one explanation that fits too well: that Clinton is actually already fighting the 2012 race. We hope we are wrong. But within this frame, her actions do make perfect sense.
Clinton seems to be doing her best to weaken Obama's candidacy and therefore the likelihood that he can win against McCain. With that result, she could say, "I told you so" and offer herself as the 2012 savior of the Democratic Party. Her husband's statement last weekend, that the Democrats were more likely to lose in November if she is not the nominee, fits that pattern.
Here's, sadly, how the strategy looks to us.
First Clinton defends her continued presence in the race against all odds, arguing that the pressure on her to get out is "unprecedented." To make her case, she compares hers with two other supposedly extended campaigns -- her husband's and RKF's. But Bill Clinton was essentially unchallenged from March on. And RFK? He entered the race mid-March, so his campaign lasted less than three months.
Then she continues her campaign as long as possible -- ideally right through the convention -- all the while pressing themes already proven to weaken Obama's. Her methods:
• Play on powerful racism that in America lies barely below the surface by emphasizing Obama's weakness among white working-class voters.
• Stoke anger about her trailing position among her most ardent supporters -- older white women -- by using sweeping claims of sexist treatment instead of attacking specific sexist statements.
• Promote uncertainty about Obama's religious beliefs, but subtly so she doesn't get slammed. For example, when she was asked whether Obama is a Muslim, she equivocated with "No, as far as I know."
• Point out, along with McCain, Obama's lack of military service as evidence that he will be inexperienced and weak in dealing with our enemies -- not as tough as she and McCain would be.
• Make the full counting of the Florida and Michigan votes a moral necessity, increasing anger among those voters. Although these states would not appreciably affect the delegate count, giving them full voting rights would create havoc in the Democratic Party's 2012 campaign schedule.
• Resist as long as possible the inevitable coming together of the two campaigns, depriving Obama of time to consolidate his efforts and giving her more time to deepen resentment against Obama among her supporters.
As a 2008 strategy, when Clinton had a reasonable chance of becoming the nominee, each of these tactics made some sense. Negative campaigning, carefully designed, often works wonders. But now that it is clear to virtually everyone that -- barring some catastrophic event -- she will not be the nominee in 2008, her actions seem to make sense only as a 2012 strategy.
She is taking a big risk, to be sure. If she goes too far, she will be seen as one cause of Obama's failure -- another Ralph Nader. She must take care not to alienate those whose support she will most need in 2012. But if we are right, she will continue to come right up to the line but not cross it too often, fighting on and on through the convention in August.
If we are wrong, and we hope we are, Clinton will graciously withdraw next Tuesday night when all fifty states, Puerto Rico, and the territories have been heard. She can declare whatever victories she wishes. But at that point, she must join Obama, ask all of her supporters to throw their full energies in support of him, and do everything she can to help him become President of these United States.
Whether or not Clinton refuses to concede at this point, the remaining uncommitted superdelegates should declare themselves immediately after the release of Tuesday's results and the leadership of the Democratic Party should publicly declare that the people have decided who their nominee will be.
Richard R. Rowe, Ph.D. has been active in the Democratic party for many years, and served in 2003 as Director of the Internet and Information Services for the Dean for America campaign. He is a Senior Fellow of the Small Planet Institute and recently was Co-chair of the Transition Team on Technology for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.
Frances Moore Lappé of the Small Planet Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the author of sixteen books, most recently Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity, and Courage in a World Gone Mad.