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Pyrrhic Victories

Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Upon defeating a Roman army in a particularly bloody battle, the Greek general Pyrrhus was congratulated upon his triumph. Pyrrhus's reply: More such victories, and we are ruined.

Last night was a disaster for the Democratic Party. Clinton's victories in Ohio and Texas will extend the nomination contest for at least another six weeks, and likely until the convention in late August. Now this is no comment on Hillary Clinton's candidacy or qualifications per se - if the situations were reversed, I would writing a very similar post about Barack Obama.

Thus far, the Democratic contest has been relatively cordial. Democrats liked both candidates, and the prolonged contest was in many respects strengthening the Democratic Party by assisting in grass-roots organizing and popular attention. However, last week the Clinton campaign, narrowly behind in Texas and narrowly ahead in Ohio, realizing that defeat in those primaries spelled the end, chose to wage a so-called "kitchen sink" negative campaign. They threw up lots of stuff hoping something, anything, would stick. They also cleverly bashed the press for favoring Obama, which resulted in somewhat more negative coverage of Barack.

Obama is now faced with a major dilemma. He can respond in kind, making his own negative attacks on Clinton. This would drive up his negatives, weaken him among independents in the general election, and risk the specter of the "angry black man" that would doom his candidacy in the long term. Or he can continue to run a positive campaign making only subtle jabs at Clinton, and risk Pennsylvania turning into another Ohio. There are no good choices. The Clinton campaign, recognizing that a purely negative campaign worked in Ohio and Texas, will likely heighten the intensity of attacks. The results? Two badly wounded candidates, with sharper divisions among their supporters and a party struggling to unite in August.

Last night was the worst possible scenario - a Clinton campaign with sufficient momentum to continue the campaign, but insufficient delegates to win the nomination. The fact is that there simply aren't enough delegates left for Clinton to pass Obama in pledged delegates. Obama is strongly favored in Mississippi, South Dakota, Montana, and has a better than even chance in North Carolina and Oregon. Clinton is favored in Kentucky and West Virginia. Indiana and Pennsylvania are, as far as I can tell, toss-ups. To win the nomination, she has to do more than win a majority of the popular vote in most of the remaining contests, particularly Indiana and Pennsylvania. She has to do well enough to win a floor fight to seat the Michigan and Florida delegations, and THEN persuade enough superdelegates to give her the nomination.

If she succeeds through negative campaigning, support from party officials, and by changing the primary rules (by seating Florida and Michigan), she will hopelessly alienate Obama's supporters (who would view her nomination as illegitimate) and reinforce the worst stereotypes about her personality. The party would be crippled going into the general election, with only 8 weeks to restore the damage. McCain would likely cruise to victory.

Remember, this is Clinton's best case scenario, and it is extremely unlikely. She might lose Pennsylvania, which would likely end the campaign. If she wins though, then Obama and Clinton will probably win the contests where each is favored, i.e. trading victories through the Convention. Obama would retain a 100 or so lead in pledged delegates, enough to control the credentials committee. Clinton will make a major push to seat the Florida and Michigan delegations as is, lose at the credentials committee, and take it to the floor - where she loses again. The Superdelegates, realizing that Obama has the advantage, support him. Obama wins the nomination, but with an angry Clinton bloc, months of negative attacks against him, and unhappy state parties in two swing states.

It's possible to mitigate the bloodletting, I suppose. Perhaps there will be a compromise over Florida and Michigan, but I doubt it. Why? Because Clinton's hopes for victory rest with the large margins she won in those 2 states. A do-over, or a reduction in the size of their delegations, would deprive of her of much of that margin. And selecting her as Obama's running mate isn't going to magically alleviate a year of bad feelings. How much influence do you really think she'd have in an Obama administration, anyway? Would she really be willing to wait another 8 years to try for the Presidency (when she's 68)?

I've come to the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely that Hillary Clinton will become President. She'll either lose the nomination, or take it under conditions that would make it impossible for her to defeat McCain. I can't blame her for doing everything necessary to achieve her life's ambition. I might do the same thing. But I'm afraid this contest is beginning to resemble a prisoner's dilemma, where Clinton's personal interest is undermining the general interest. It's sad, but we are where we are.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:31 PM
  • I see last night exactly as you see it: a disaster for the Democratic party. I'm so upset about this it's affecting my ability to do actual work. Seriously. I keep reading political blogs hoping to find a silver lining... and I can't.

    I am convinced that if HRC wins the nom, she will lose the GE. I didn't used to think that, but now I do. And so once again, "we" will put a Republican in the White House.

    I can't feasibly stay drunk until the convention, can I? Because that seems like the only way to ease the pain...

    By Blogger Maggie, at 1:48 PM  
  • There's no need to jump in front of a bus or anything! :) If Obama can manage to defeat Clinton in Pennsylvania, she'll be knocked out of the race. And I think that if Obama still has a substantial delegate lead after the primaries, she's going to come under unbelievable pressure to give in. I don't know if she will, but she might. It really is all up to Howard Dean and Al Gore - and if I had to put the responsibility on any two, it would be them.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 2:12 PM  
  • Hey, maybe Obama will just drop out of the race for the good of the country.



    On a more serious note, I appreciate what you are saying and I agree that getting republicans out of the white house is of paramount importance. But something about her unwillingness to give up just makes me want her more. :)

    By Blogger Silk Stocking, at 4:26 PM  
  • Now, I don't remember gloating when Hillary was losing by 20 pts every week for a month. :)

    Seriously though, I think there is a real risk of this campaign getting too nasty. And the nast seems to be coming primarily from one campaign.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 6:20 PM  
  • Perhaps I am in la-la land, but i was very pleased with last night's results. I would have been more pleased if Obama had won OH or TX, and therefore forced Clinton from the race, but things are looking nice for the Democratic party. Consider:

    1) The majority of Americans are going to vote for a Democrat, whether it's Clinton or Obama, because McCain has tied himself not only to an unpopular policy, but he leads a divided Republican Party that is being depressed by a deeply unpopular president. McCain can't win this election, no matter how hard he tries, because too many factors, including the economy, are against him.

    2) The drama over the next 6 weeks will place the national dialogue fully in Democratic terms as coverage of the democratic race dominates headlines. This is high-level entertainment. Since both candidates are attractive and compelling on their own terms, we are going to see the equivalent of Political American Idol until the convention, which, culturally, is very cool.

    3) The Democratic party has rebuilt itself, with the help of Obama and Clinton, while the Republican Party, as mentioned, as fractured itself. Many Republicans and Independents will be voting for Obama, and the superdelegates know that, so there is a great chance Obama will be the nominee. No matter what happens between now and the convention, we are about to witness something very cool: a true airing out of all the ideas that drive the Democratic Party. That hasn't happened for 40 years.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 7:33 PM  
  • That's just crazy talk.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 9:51 PM  
  • i know, i was so depressed seeing it last night. i agree with you, i hope obama wins penn, b/c clinton is so negative i shudder to think where it will go....

    By Blogger JustMe, at 10:05 PM  
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