No Really, You Should Go

by Jonathan Chait | April 23, 2008

Last week, Senator Pat Leahy suggested that Hillary Clinton ought to quit the presidential race. How insensitive! How boorish! Pundits gasped, Clinton took umbrage, and even Barack Obama was forced to concede that Clinton has the right to run for as long as she desires.

The persistent weakness of American liberalism is its fixation with rights and procedures at any cost to efficiency and common sense. Democrats' reluctance to push Clinton out of the race is the perfect expression of that delicate sensibility.

There is some point at which a candidate's chance of winning becomes so low that her right to continue is outweighed by the party's interest in preparing for the general election. Does Clinton have a chance to become president? Sure. So does Ralph Nader. Clinton's chances are far closer to Nader's than to either Obama's or John McCain's.

Almost nobody contends that Clinton has a chance to overcome Obama's lead in pledged delegates. The spin now is that Obama's delegate lead is "small but almost insurmountable" (USA Today) and that, since neither can clinch the nomination with pledged delegates alone, "the nomination is expected to be in the superdelegates' hands" (Los Angeles Times). These beliefs reflect the mathematical illiteracy that has allowed the press corps to be routinely duped by economic flim-flammery. A lead that's insurmountable is, by definition, not small. The very primary rules that make it impossible for Clinton to catch up--proportionate distribution of delegates that award tiny net sums to the winner--are exactly what made Obama's lead so impressive.

The notion that the superdelegates will decide the race implies that pledged delegates won't matter--like a sports event that goes to overtime. Obviously, though, the pledged-delegate count determines how many superdelegates each candidate needs. Depending on how the remaining primaries go, Clinton will need about two-thirds of the uncommitted ones to break her way. Problem is, over the last month, superdelegates have broken to Obama by 78 percent to 22 percent.

And the supers who haven't endorsed are even less likely to side with Clinton. Numerous reports on uncommitted superdelegates have made clear that they have remained on the sideline out of an exquisite fear of stepping on the results of the voters. As my colleague Noam Scheiber reported, "Just about every superdelegate and party operative I spoke with endorsed Nancy Pelosi's recent suggestion that pledged delegates should matter most" ("Slouching Toward Denver," April 9).

Some have gamely insisted that a long campaign actually helps the Democrats, as evidenced by high primary turnout and new voter registration in states like Pennsylvania. But, to believe this argument, you'd have to believe that many of the voters flocking to the primaries would otherwise not have voted in the general election--an absurdity, given that even the high Democratic primary turnout is a fraction of normal general election turnout. You'd have to ignore Obama's foregone opportunities to start organizing nationally and making his general election pitch. And you'd have to explain away the fact that, in recent weeks, Obama has gone from leading McCain in the polls to trailing. (Clinton has trailed McCain for months; now her deficit is growing.)

For the most part, though, Clintonites have presented her continued campaign as a fulfillment of rights. Historian (and TNR alum) David Greenberg recently placed Obama's uplifting style in the tradition of the ineffectual liberals that Arthur Schlesinger derided as "doughfaces" ("Double Negative," April 9). As Greenberg wrote, "A well-placed concern not to let ends justify means has often led to a misplaced sacrifice of ends to means." By contrast, he situated Clinton as an heir to "FDR and the New Deal's lieutenants [who] respected fair play and fair procedures, but they put results first."

I think the analogy is apt, but Greenberg has the protagonists backward. It's those defending Clinton's campaign who angrily wave away any practical considerations. In an editorial bolstering Clinton's prerogative to stay in the race, The Washington Post insisted, "No doubt the Democrats have gotten themselves into a fix with rules that may leave the final decision to unelected superdelegates--but why is the answer to that less democracy?"

Anyone who tried to talk sense into a Ralph Nader supporter in 2000 probably heard some version of this rationale. Giving the voters more candidates is democracy, man. The decision to run is an act of civic virtue that may not be analyzed for its real-world effects. Nader himself dismissed Leahy's call for Clinton to withdraw as "political bigotry." He urged, "Listen to your own inner citizen First Amendment voice. This is America. Just like every other citizen, you have a right to run."

A related justification is the "Think of the Puerto Ricans" defense. As a Clinton campaign memo insists, "the citizens in Pennsylvania, Guam, North Carolina, Indiana, West Virginia, Oregon, Kentucky, Puerto Rico, Montana and South Dakota have not yet had the opportunity to exercise that fundamental right." Of course, if Clinton suspended her campaign, those states could still vote for her if they wanted. It's true that their vote wouldn't matter, but that's the way it usually works most of the time anyway. A few months ago, everybody expected the race to be decided after New Hampshire. Now we can't bear to face the fact that the race has been decided after merely 80 percent of the states have weighed in.

Then you have the millions of Clinton supporters who have come to see her campaign as the literal embodiment of feminism. "Now Clinton's methodical, dogged history of work for the Democratic Party is treated just like the methodical, dogged histories of so many women in the workplace," writes syndicated columnist Marie Cocco. "She must step aside to take the smaller office, with the lesser title and the lower pay to make room for the younger guy with the thinner resume."

In the same column, Cocco concedes, "Maybe it is true that Clinton has no realistic way to win the nomination." That's quite a concession! That is, if you consider the presidency an instrument for legislation and policy change, rather than a vehicle for Hillary Clinton's self-actualization and the civic expression of the South Dakota Democratic primary electorate.

Schlesinger once described the doughface tradition thusly: "Politics becomes, not a means of getting things done, but an outlet for private grievances and frustrations." Is there any better description for Clinton's rationale?

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor for The New Republic.

 

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