05/02/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Battling On... To The Bitter End

It's official: the suffering will go on. With Hillary taking Pennsylvania, the Democratic Party will continue to wallow in nomination purgatory, unable to unite behind a candidate, unable to heal wounds that are growing deeper by the day. Unable, really, to do anything but watch helplessly as John McCain marches into Selma, Alabama to move in on African-American voters. Meanwhile, the Obama and Clinton campaigns might just be turning a mere food fight into a full-blown civil war within the party.

The frustrating thing, of course, is that there's really no end game here. At least, there's no constructive end game. Hillary, lagging hopelessly behind in the trifecta of pledged delegates, popular vote, and number of states won, can't expect to score a sudden breakthrough with voters. Nobody at this point is going to be moved by her policy positions or her experience. The voters know Hillary very well, and they've made up their minds one way or the other. And don't take my word for it: Hillary's own mantra is that she's the candidate who's already been vetted by the public and the media.

So if Hillary isn't going to make her own positive gains into Obama's larger core of support, what is she hoping for in the days and weeks (and maybe months!) ahead? The short answer is that she's waiting -- just treading water -- for something to tarnish Obama's shiny image. She probably thought she had it with the Rev. Wright affair, when her campaign latched onto incendiary statements made by Obama's pastor. And you can just picture Howard Wolfson, her chief media spinner and a man who feigns indignation as well as anyone in the business, jumping out of his seat when Obama's comments on small town voters hit the wires.

But neither Pastorgate nor Bittergate have done the trick for Hillary: we're right where we left off when the last major round of primaries took place. In fact, the exit polls from Pennsylvania are uncannily similar to those seven weeks ago in Ohio, even among the demographic groups that Hillary's supporters claim will usher her to the party's nomination. In both states, Hillary took exactly 58% of voters who did not have a college degree. Hillary took 64% of white voters in Ohio compared to 63% in Pennsylvania. And Hillary captured 56% of Ohio voters who earned less than $50,000 per year compared to 54% in Pennsylvania.

All of which goes to show that Hillary's attacks aren't changing the fundamental dynamics of this race. Surely her hope is that more ammunition will emerge; after all, she got two mini-scandals just by holding on in the weeks between Ohio and Pennsylvania. Yet the trenches are dug in this race. Gaffes, verbal lapses, and howling at every misstep are satisfying the media's thirst for juiciness. But acrimony and accusation aren't changing minds in an election that most voters are taking quite seriously; what they're doing instead is poisoning the well, convincing Hillary's supporters that Obama is unfit to lead and convincing Obama's supporters that Hillary represents exactly the kind of attack dog politics we've got to move beyond.

It's not too late. The party's leaders can show, well, leadership, and pressure superdelegates to declare their support. Or both campaigns can step away from the ledge and return to a worthwhile discussion of the issues. But if these things don't happen, it's easy to see the trainwreck at the end of the tunnel. Looking back years from now, the term "Bittergate" may not refer to a few inartful paragraphs muttered by one of the candidates, but instead to the increasing polarization and anger welling up inside the Democratic Party in a year when it should be coasting into the White House.