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
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
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
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?