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Jennifer Nix Headshot

The Campaign of Magical Thinking

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When a top Hillary Clinton advisor predicted on February 16 that his candidate would "lock down" the Democratic nomination, called the number of elections and delegates won by Barack Obama "irrelevant," and later characterized the race as "wide open," it occurred to me that in the homestretch to March 4th, and what could be the decisive primaries, Clinton's campaign is relying heavily on magical thinking.

These bold statements, from longtime Clinton cohort Harold Ickes, demand subscription to the notions that if superdelegates are willing to flout what is currently Obama's lead in the popular vote and pledged delegates, and Clinton manages to get the renegade Michigan and Florida delegates seated at the convention--and wins either Texas or Ohio, then she will land the nomination for the presidency.

This reasoning is pinned at present on diaphanous evidence, threatened lawsuits and some audacious fear-mongering. It is rooted in the Clinton campaign's emotional investment in a host of great expectations--to finish what Clinton started on the health care front in the 90s, to restore the Clinton legacy, and to elect the first woman president in U.S. history-- ideas which have lost their luster in the Democratic, and perhaps American psyche, since those golden days of inevitability.

As Joan Didion wrote in her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, about her mental and emotional state after her husband's sudden death, this kind of thinking can set in when grief is too great to bear, and one cannot deal with the reality of death. "I had entered at the moment it happened a kind of shock in which the only thought I allowed myself was that there must be certain things I needed to do."

With Clinton's inevitability turned to dust and her losses in eleven straight contests pointing to the likely end of her campaign, the candidate and her staffers are busying themselves with ominous tasks to fend off the shock.

The question is: At what cost to the rest of the Democratic party, and the nation?

Robert Pinsky explained in the New York Times that magical thinking "creates needs, interdictions, omens: I need to be in the one city where the dead person would return, if he came back; I cannot give away certain of that person's shoes; the dead sea gull and the typo and the undeleted e-mail message are signs. That internal voice, 'magical thinking' denying its own desperation, whispers that the funeral ritual will restore what is lost. It says that reading the obituary would be a betrayal."

In the final days before March 4, the Clinton campaign was frantically making straw man arguments about disenfranchised voters, wildly trying to change expectations and firewalls, rattling the lawsuit saber in Texas, and airing spurious television ads that raise the specter of nuclear attacks. Her advocates are also working furiously to keep and court more superdelegates. The candidate herself, however, made a public request that superdelegates wait until after Texas and Ohio to publicly announce who they'll support at the convention, in an effort to stem the tide of elected officials and party power-brokers defecting to her rival, Senator Barack Obama, or moving from her pledged support column to undecided.

Despite this request, as of Friday at least thirteen superdelegates had publicly announced a distancing from Clinton, including Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) who formally announced last Wednesday that he was switching his influential support from Clinton to Obama, while DNC member and California superdelegate John Perez has switched from supporting Clinton to undecided. As he told the AP, "Given where the race is at right now, I think it's very important for [superdelegates] to play a role around bringing the party together around the candidate that people have chosen, as opposed to advocating for our own choice." Senator Chris Dodd's endorsement of Obama last week is also a harbinger of more supedelegate support to come, according to several party activists and observers, who pointed to the fact that five of these superdelegates announced their support for Obama on Friday.

According to the widely-cited blog, 2008 Democratic Convention Watch (DemConWatch), of the 794 superdelegates currently up for grabs, Clinton does have pledged support from 240 superdelegates to Obama's 191 (the New York Times reported the candidates' own estimates on Friday as 258 for Clinton and "more than 200" for Obama), but superdelegates will not actually vote until the national convention. There are no rules forcing them to vote according to their current pledges, and if Obama were to attract no more Clinton supporters and he gets even half of the remaining unpledged superdelegates, which current trajectories support, he will surpass Clinton in the overall delegate/superdelegate count and win the nomination. (Wouldn't it be nice if this madness would end before we have to start counting unpledged add-on delegates?!)

Then, there is the Michigan and Florida aspect of the Clinton campaign's magical thinking.

Clinton and her supporters believe that the delegates from the renegade primaries, which Clinton "won" (in Michigan because she was the only candidate on the ballot and in Florida where candidates had agreed not to campaign), should be counted. They believe this despite the DNC's August 2007 ruling that these states' delegates would not be seated, as punishment for Michigan and Florida moving up their primary dates. And they adamantly believe the votes should be counted as is, rather than via new contests, as currently suggested by the DNC.

In an interview that aired last Thursday on Texas Monthly Talks, Clinton said she intends to press the issue that Florida and Michigan delegates be seated, despite the widespread belief that she signed a pledge to the contrary. Magical thinking has Clinton and her staffers convinced they are right, even though every other Democratic candidate clearly understood and accepted the DNC ruling at the time, and it strains credulity to think that Hillary Clinton would have misunderstood the intention of the agreement, particularly when none other than her advisor (and delegate expert) Harold Ickes voted in August to strip Florida and Michigan of their delegates as a sitting member of the DNC Rules and Bylaws committee.

"I signed an agreement not to campaign in Michigan and Florida. Now, the DNC made the determination that they would not seat the delegates, but I was not party to that," Clinton said. "I think it's important for the DNC to ask itself, Is this really in the best interest of our eventual nominee? We do not want to be disenfranchising Michigan and Florida...Senator Bill Nelson, of Florida, early on in the process actually sued because he thinks it's absurd on its face that 1.7 million Democrats who eventually voted would basically be disregarded, and I agree with him about that."

While it is true that Nelson did file a suit in a Florida district court, the case was lost in December, and there is little hope that any other court will tamper with the party's inner workings on this matter; it will likely remain a matter for the DNC credentialing committee. In a letter dated February 8, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond petitioned the DNC to seat Florida and Michigan delegates on "civil rights" grounds, while opponents of this theory, such as the Reverend Al Sharpton (currently neutral on the endorsement front), say it would be a "grave injustice" to change the agreed-upon rules now, and that such a claim should have been made months ago, before the primaries were held--not after.

"To raise that claim now smacks of politics in its form most raw and undercuts the moral authority behind such an argument," Sharpton wrote in his own letter to the DNC.

Lost on Clinton supporters, in their magical-thinking determination to have the wins in Florida and Michigan represented in her delegate count, is the fact that these delegates still do not put Clinton in the lead. According to DemConWatch, even with the renegade delegates added into the mix, Clinton would still trail Obama in pledged delegates going into Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas and Vermont, by a count of 1211 to Obama's 1255 delegates.

This brings us to the final point in Clinton's magical thinking about her chances, in which the candidate scoffs at mathematical impossibilities and believes that winning Ohio or Texas will give her the juice to become the Democratic nominee.

As recently as Thursday, Clinton operatives were still pushing the argument that Clinton could win one or both of these two delegate-rich states. The latest polls in Ohio do show Clinton ahead, but only by 47 to 45 percent. And, as the polls changed Thursday night to reflect that Obama is now ahead of Clinton in Texas by 48.2 to 41.7 percent, the Clinton campaign started crying foul about that state's hybrid primary/caucus election system (which has been in place for decades), and is making noise about suing the Texas Democratic Party.

The Clintonites believe that Obama does well in caucuses, so their magical thinking tells them that caucuses must be stopped. According to author and activist Glenn Smith:

"It is widely assumed that Obama's organizational advantage will achieve in the caucus portion of the Texas election just what it has achieved in earlier caucuses: a significant victory in delegates. There are 67 delegates at stake in those caucuses. The Clinton campaign would like to delay the reporting of the caucus results, and that is why they have continually "reserved the right to challenge" Texas law and Democratic party procedures...The Clinton campaign strategy is to justify taking the fight beyond Texas even if they fall further behind Obama in the national delegate count. To do that, they must cast doubt over the fate of the 67 delegates that will be chosen at the caucus level. Hence, their tough positioning in phone calls with Texas Democratic Party officials and others involved in the primary here."

On Friday, the campaign tried to minimize expectations for Clinton and to change the firewall once again, by releasing an odd memo, outlining how Obama is enjoying momentum and outspending Clinton in the March 4th primary states, and then stating: "Should Senator Obama fail to score decisive victories with all of the resources and effort he is bringing to bear, the message will be clear: Democrats, the majority of whom have favored Hillary in the primary contests held to date, have their doubts about Senator Obama and are having second thoughts about him as a prospective standard-bearer."

The most ominous undertaking by the Clinton camp to date, however, also came Friday morning, when they unveiled an ad, raising the specter of nuclear attack, and harkening back to the infamous 1964 "Daisy ad" employed by Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater.

"It's 3:00 am and your children are asleep," the voiceover says. "There's a phone in the White House, and it's ringing. Something is happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call. Whether someone knows the world's leaders, knows the military, someone tested and ready to lead. It's 3am and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?"

In campaign speeches over the weekend, Clinton also hammered away on a related attack trying to conflate her own and Obama's votes regarding Iraq war funding. As she cannot escape the facts that she voted "with conviction" to allow George W. Bush to invade Iraq and that Obama was a vocal opponent to the war, Clinton claims that once Obama came to the Senate, he voted just as she did in support of the war. Only magical thinking can allow Clinton to argue this point, when she knows very well that votes to support funding for troops who were already in harm's way, and as Iraq lay in ruins, are in no way equivalent to the lack of wisdom and judgment she showed in empowering Bush to launch his preemptive war.

According to the Clinton campaign's magical thinking, it is justified to use any means necessary to tear down her opponent, including the blatant peddling of specious equivalencies and fear. I suppose it's too much to ask that they remember her husband's own words, back in 2004: "If one candidate is trying to scare you, and the other one is trying to make you think, if one candidate's appealing to your fears, and the other one's appealing to your hopes, you better vote for the person who wants you to think and hope." (Of course, that was Bill Clinton 1.0 talking.)

How will Hillary Clinton feel when she snaps out of this period of magical thinking and realizes that her last ditch moves were seen by many Americans as a tragic assault on a reinvigorated democratic process, which is involving a record number of voters across the nation, and as giving ammunition to the GOP machine for their attempts to tear apart the Democratic candidate? Will she also wake up some morning and realize just how tarnished the Clinton legacy has become?

If Clinton fails to win Ohio and Texas by large margins, there is only one honorable move. It's time to bring the magical thinking to an end.