We have already started rifling through our thesauruses – or more accurately scanning them – trying to find the right, over the top, description for the titanic primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – extraordinary, historic, unprecedented. Both Clinton’s people and Obama’s people are invested in emphasizing just how many people voted, how intense the process was, how hard-fought the battle was. For Clintonites, this becomes a way of still trying to eke out a win, or, at very least, preserving some dignity, some bragging rights – and a shot at 2012 if Obama falters. For Obamaniacs, this becomes a way of graciously saluting Hillary and her supporters as worthy opponents, while also trying to make these last few weeks a triumphal victory over a superstar, rather than an exhausted stumble toward the finish line.
Still, as we tally up the thousands of delegates, tens of millions of votes, and hundreds of millions of dollars, most Democrats seek closure. One of the extraordinary, historic, unprecedented moves Hillary Clinton made was that she simply refused to concede defeat. As a result, she not only ended up winning many more big state primaries than Obama did, she also demonstrated the depth of her support. Had she quit in February or early March, she would have been remembered as the Ed Muskie of 2008, an over-confident frontrunner whose aides spent too much time debating who would get which West Wing office but produced as little as Muskie did in his 1972 Democratic presidential primary collapse. Instead, Hillary Clinton proved quite formidable – she and her husband angered many Democrats in this campaign, but she mobilized millions.
Today, after the final state primaries, Hillary Clinton must make a critical decision. Her impressive swing-state victories and her historic vote total have vindicated her decision to hang on for dear life these last few months. Grumbling from John Edwards’ camp that he should not have quit so soon emphasizes one of the probable legacies from Clinton’s never-say-die campaign: in the future it will be harder to get candidates to give up, and thus harder for parties to rally around one winner early in the process. But with Obama on the verge of sewing up enough delegates, with party leaders starting to beg for unity, the time has come to end the campaign.
Ending the campaign when there remains even a slight chance of winning – a knock- out Obama scandal, a sudden shift in super-delegate sentiments – violates Hillary Clinton’s deepest instincts and most enduring political lessons. She frequently has recalled that when she was young, a neighboring girl bullied her, reducing Hillary to tears. Her mother, Dorothy Rodham, banned young Hillary from the house, refusing to give refuge to a coward. Hillary went out, walloped her rival, and earned the respect of the boys – and this girl’s eventual friendship. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s marriage to Bill Clinton has been a decades-long exercise in refusing to quit, no matter how personal the hurt, no matter how public the humiliation. And throughout the 1990s, both Hillary and Bill Clinton distinguished themselves as public figures who frequently beat the odds by hanging on – from eventually winning as the “Comeback Kid” in 1992 to defying widespread calls for his resignation during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, then seeing Bill emerge as a presidential rock star in and out of office, while Hillary ended up as a powerful New York Senator and leading presidential candidate.
While there is nothing like winning, there are better and worse ways to lose. If Hillary Clinton concedes gracefully now that the last vote has been cast, and works enthusiastically for an Obama victory, she may restore some of the Clinton sheen that this vicious primary battle tarnished. Talk about the Clintons’ 2012 strategy – sabotage Obama so she has a shot four years later – the absurd claim that by remembering that Bobby Kennedy ran in June she was calling for Obama’s assassination – both reveal how angry Obama Democrats are with the Clintons.
Hillary Clinton must make the right, gracious, conciliatory moves, sooner rather than later. If she does it right, she will position herself as the next-in-line to lead the Democratic party if Obama falls, or continue to be a power-player in Washington during an Obama Administration. There are second acts in presidential politics. Ronald Reagan lost a heartbreaker in the Republican nomination fight in 1976 – but he did okay after that, I think. Moreover, she will help rebuild the Clinton legacy and restore some of the Clinton magic that has dissipated amid the stench of sweat and bile this extraordinary, historic, unprecedented campaign generated.