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Clinton's Hail Mary

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The 2008 Democratic Presidential primary is down to the short strokes today, and unless you have the luxury of hanging out in front of a laptop and cable news all day, you're likely to miss the rapidly evolving or devolving (depending on your perspective) conclusion of this fascinating race.

As I write this, Obama's on the Hill meeting with "a swarm" of "completely star struck" Superdelegates and party insiders -- a hero's welcome. Earlier today, Obama met with a group of "Blue Dog" Congressional Democrats -- anti-progressives, every one, and not normally in the same camp as the "most liberal Senator," but eager to associate with a winner and critical to a candidate who seriously intends to actually win Southern states that in the past have gone Republican but this year have registered recordbreaking Democratic turnouts. John Edwards's campaign manager has just endorsed Obama, and Edwards himself -- the last challenger to drop out of the race and an important voice -- is appearing on "The Today Show" early tomorrow morning, possibly to finally pick a side. The new "Time" magazine cover shows Obama grinning, with the headline "And The Winner Is..."

In the last 24 hours, a probable deal has materialized that would resolve the Michigan primary debacle by giving Obama just ten delegates fewer than Clinton -- an irrelevant dent in his huge delegate lead -- instead of denying him any Michigan delegates whatsoever, as the Clinton campaign still insisted upon just yesterday. Obama has even appeared on his campaign jet in blue jeans for the first time -- not cravenly reaching out to blue-collar voters, since he wore them on his own plane and not while standing in the bed of a pickup truck, but rather a sign that he's relaxing a little before shifting into full-blown general election mode.

Obama's chillin'.

Meanwhile, Clinton's self-destructing. An unidentified campaign insider has admitted she can't hold out past mid-June. One of her key supporters, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has started questioning her support. Yet another Clinton superdelegate has switched his allegiance to Obama. Former President Jimmy Carter has gone public with a call to wind things up. All the pundits -- even George Stephanopolous, the longtime Clinton supporter who tilted the last debate so far her way that his career as a journalist was endangered -- are calling the race over. (On MSNBC, Chris Matthews just told Clinton's communications director Howard Wolfson, "you guys are like those Japanese soldiers, still fighting in 1953.... After the Battleship Missouri signing ceremony [ending WWII], you're still holding on.") Facing a campaign finance disclosure deadline, she has been forced to admit loaning her campaign over $6.4 million in the last month -- bringing the total to over $11 million -- and hasn't ruled out more self-administered life support.

And now, she's even managed to undercut one of her few remaining liberal credentials by explaining her loss in North Carolina and her slender win in Indiana in expressly racial, even racist, terms. In a press conference yesterday, her top campaign staff boasted of her performance among the "white electorate" and described whites as the key to Clinton's "electability." Then today, in a short clip that's now repeating endlessly on cable news, Hillary Clinton herself repeated and even amplified their misstep, saying, "Senator Obama's support among working, hardworking Americans, white Americans is weakening again, and ... the whites in both states who had not attended college were supporting me...."

If the Clinton campaign was unsure whether their strategy of making Bill Clinton their official Ambassador to Bubba had succeeded in destroying any remaining fondness of the black community for the Clintons, or wanted to start driving non-black minorities out of their shrinking tent as well, this new, express focus on "the white electorate" was just the trick. This is not the kind of ham-fisted P.R. we expect of a Clinton -- or of a candidate whose hopes depend on convincing superdelegates that she's more electable than the guy she's losing the election to.

And so earlier today, faced with the prospect of their Michigan card going away, and with indispensable Congressional superdelegates literally sitting in a meeting with Obama and deciding which way they'll swing, the Clinton campaign has scrambled -- I'll tell you how we know they scrambled in a sec -- to release, very publicly, and in electronic form suitable for beaming to Superdelegates' Blackberries mid-meeting, an open letter to Obama, daring him to support the seating of the Michigan and Florida delegates according to the results of those states' flawed primaries, which both candidates previously swore to discount. That letter is a picture window into the post-rational mind of Hillary Clinton in the waning days of her lifelong dream.

The letter was hastily prepared. We know this because, in a game where letters like this are planned and stockpiled weeks ahead of time and then magically appear in reporters' emails when the timing is exactly right like Athena springing full-armored from the head of Zeus, this key letter has not one, but two typographical errors. I can't remember any other Clinton press release, even the workaday ones reporting the candidate's schedule, containing a typo -- but this one, intended for broad public consumption at a critical juncture, has two. It obviously was cranked out in a hurry, more like the work of a pajama-clad blogger trying to scoop the Associated Press from his parents' basement than that of a Presidential campaign paid to plan every move like chess champions on the national stage. Athena's armor is on crooked.

The fact that letter was hastily prepared means that it is a response to unforeseen events -- specifically, the prospect that Michigan will be resolved sooner, and more evenly, than Clinton expected.

The possibility that the Clinton campaign hadn't seriously considered the possibility of an uncontested resolution in Michigan is stunning, and suggests how deeply out of touch with political and mathematical reality the Clintons have become.

Every other significant party leader and respectable (!) pundit has said all along that Michigan and Florida's delegations will be seated by August -- just not in any way that would alter the outcome of the nominating contest. The DNC has even reserved hotel space in Denver for those delegations. But Clinton has been saying, with increasing fervor, that not only would Michigan and Florida be seated -- but seated exactly as they voted in January, with Clinton receiving a large majority of Florida's delegates and Obama getting no Michigan delegates at all, since his name wasn't even on the ballot. (That disingenuous Michigan math, by the way, is how Clinton was able to claim, for a brief period, that she had won more popular votes than Obama had nationwide: she didn't count caucuses, and she gave him no votes in Michigan since, technically, someone not on the ballot can get none.)

In the past, when Clinton stood firm on her "Obama gets no delegates from Michigan" stance, I assumed she was merely being tough and calculating. No sensible person reasonably expected the party's elders to give Obama zero delegates if they seated Michigan. And Clinton's own campaign staff seemed to admit yesterday that she could not win the race for elected delegates even if Michigan and Florida were counted the way she wanted them to be. Of course I didn't believe that Hillary Clinton herself could believe her own press releases.

But now I think that maybe she did. If today's desperate open letter to Obama reflects panic that Michigan may be seated in a fair rather than disproportionate way, then perhaps she actually has believed until now that Michigan would save her. Which means she actually has believed, until now, that the superdelegates will flock to her at the last minute. Which means she actually has believed, until now, that she really is the only electable candidate, and perhaps that fate has willed her to be President the same way George W. Bush believes God willed him to be President.

Remind me: which candidate has the Messiah complex, again?

It's unreasonable to believe Clinton can still win in 2008. Given the political savvy she's usually credited with, I've assumed she understood the math and the practical politics, and so have concluded that her recent actions were early groundwork for her 2012 campaign, not sincere efforts to salvage her 2008 campaign. But maybe I've been giving her too much credit. We've already seen that, as a campaigner, she's no Bill Clinton; maybe she's no Hillary Clinton, either. Maybe, just maybe, she's sincerely deluded. Today's flawed Hail Mary letter suggests she is.

Of course Clinton's letter isn't exactly accurate: for instance, last Fall Clinton herself said this about the Michigan primary: "It's clear: This election they're having is not going to count for anything. I personally did not think it made any difference whether or not my name was on the ballot." There was no revote in Michigan primarily because powerful Michigan Senator Carl Levin opposed it, not because Obama did. And, of course, Clinton campaigned stealthily in Florida after swearing -- literally signing a pledge -- not to compete there, yet later began insisting on recognizing the results of that election and even opposed a proposed caucus re-do in Florida to that end. Her hands aren't clean, and the intelligent, politically sophisticated Democrats in Michigan and Florida know full well that today's letter is simplistic and misleading. But it's the timing of the letter, and the otherwise-unremarkable mistakes it contains, that tell the real story here.

Here's another way of understanding today's letter, with its typos and factual misrepresentations and flat-footed play for the sentiments of Michiganders and Floridians who already understand the complexities of the issue in far more depth than Clinton's letter assumes: football.

I know that sports cliches get old, but Clinton has portrayed herself as Rocky, battered but unbowed. (She forgets that after Rocky and Apollo Creed batter themselves insensible, Rocky loses.) Bill Clinton has said that if Obama didn't want to get hit, he shouldn't have suited up. They're right that sports are a good analogy; they've just got the game's situation wrong:

It's late in the fourth quarter; maybe a minute to go. Obama is up by three touchdowns. All he really needs to do is drop to a knee four times to run the clock out, and he wins. The police are restraining the fans from coming onto the field; the announcers are naming the production staff. But Clinton doesn't believe it's over. She believes she still can win - after all, it's not mathematically impossible for her to score on a Hail Mary, kick the extra point, successfully recover an onside kick, then do it all twice more, all in one minute. It's never been done, but it theoretically could be.

And then she does what all inferior quarterbacks do under pressure: she tries that Hail Mary pass - today's letter, trying to salvage a lopsided delegate count from Michigan - but, under pressure, she isn't paying attention to fundamentals any more. She isn't watching for the secondary receiver; she isn't using her peripheral vision; she isn't making a firm plant before releasing the ball; she throws away Latino and Asian and black votes by repeatedly emphasizing the importance of "the white electorate"; she isn't even running SpellCheck on important documents. There's not enough time! There's not enough time! The candidate herself repeats her staffers' racist blunders; the important "open letter" is issued to thousands of media outlets with two typographical errors. The ball leaves the quarterback's hand with a slight wobble... the defender wants to end the game, and his eyes and his reflexes are sharp....

Or we can return to Clinton's Rocky analogy. There's a reason fights have referees, and fighters have trainers who are authorized to throw in the towel: the boxer who's high on adrenaline and dizzy from being pummeled doesn't always realize how badly she's being beaten or how much she stands to lose by continuing. In some fights, when the fighter won't quit but should, it's completely proper -- humane for the fighter, and healthy for the sport itself -- for someone to stop the fight. Not because they're afraid of the fight continuing, but because they see, even if the fighter doesn't, that it's actually already over.

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