For weeks Sen. Clinton and her supporters taunted the Obama campaign by asking, "Why can't he close the deal?" Fair question. If Obama is going to be the nominee, they argued, why can't he deliver some more decisive wins?
After tonight's results the question has to be reversed: Why couldn't she close the deal? Sen. Clinton needed a forceful victory to deliver the message that she, not Sen. Obama, has momentum and vote-getting ability. Yet she lost resoundingly in North Carolina, and as of this writing Indiana hangs in the balance. I'm not prepared to write the Clinton campaign's obit yet - that's been done one too many times already, and they may continue to fight for a while. What's different now is that the outcome has become inevitable.
Listening to Sen. Clinton's speech tonight, the lyrics of an old Randy Travis hit (a good populist country song) came to mind: Is it still over? Are we still through? Before today's primaries she had already lost the nomination process according to any objective measure not invented by her own campaign. She was trailing in pledged delegates, and was even lagging behind in that questionable and tainted metric they call the "popular vote" count. After tonight, she'll still be lagging.
There was no "game-changer" tonight. It's still over. She's still through.
The "deal" she had to close wasn't the nomination itself, but something less lofty. She merely needed to "un-conclude" the race, by convincing superdelegates and party loyalists of two things: That Obama had a "glass jaw" (to use a Republican phrase), and that by contrast she had the momentum and fighting ability of a true winner. Those two ideas needed to be demonstrated in a convincing manner - so convincing, in fact, that Party leaders could justify overturning the agreed-upon selection process.
It was a tall order, and she fell short. She threw the kitchen sink at Obama and he came back strong. He refused to pander on the gas tax, instead choosing to bank on the wisdom of the voters. He exceeded expectations, then capped his victory with a speech that was at once inspiring, populist-themed, and generous toward his opponent. (He gave the audience a foretaste of the game he'd be bringing to John McCain, too.)
So why couldn't she close the deal? Pundits will argue about that in the days and weeks to come, but here's my theory: Voters rejected cynicism. The notion that "we can play the Republican game, but better" alienated them. In the end, the "lesser of two evils" approach was less effective. That's a hopeful sign for the future.
Most of the talking heads on TV tonight were taking the position that it's all over but the shouting, and that Sen. Clinton is positioning herself for a graceful exit. Only Rachel Maddow took the contrarian position that the Clintons are preparing a "scorched earth" campaign. Even before Rachel spoke I was giving the "exit strategy" theory 2 to 1 odds. The other possibility, the one Rachel calls "scorched earth," I'd give a 1 in 3 chance.
Nobody ever went broke betting against the Clintons being gracious. But remember, Hillary will need to operate in the collectivized structure of the Senate. She also needs to hang on to enough goodwill for a possible second Presidential run. And then there's the matter of her huge campaign debt. Russert says there may be a deal in the works for the Obama campaign to pay it off.
So, while I'm not ready to join the Hallelujah Chorus yet, there are some plausible scenarios for a possible wind-down of this conflict. That raises hopes for a unified party - hopes that have looked nearly dead until now. It would be heartening to see the Obama and Clinton camps, and their respective followers, go to work rebuilding and reuniting their fractured party. A well-orchestrated Clinton exit after the Kentucky and West Virginia primaries could be face-saving all around, and would allow the parties to plan for a graceful transition to a united party.
Come to think of it, I take back what I said. There was a game-changer tonight. You can't make the argument that you're a winner and your opponent's a loser unless you're winning. As far as that "game-changer" is concerned:
UPDATE: Is the Clinton team predictable, or is the Clinton team predictable? On Monday I suggested satirically that their next tactic would be to suggest that the Democrats hold "whites-only primaries" from here on in. Greg Sargent reports Clinton's chief strategist, Geoff Garin, is now saying essentially the same thing. (More here.)