Hillary Clinton Wins, Republican Style

HILLARY CLINTON HAS FINALLY FIGURED OUT how to win a few big states. She had tried, alternately, the poses of inevitability, experience, motherliness, wisdom, scrappiness and steadfastness, all to little avail. Finally, she's found the solution. After all, her campaign now calls itself "Solutions for America." To heal her own malady of consistently losing to Barack Obama, Clinton decided to scrap any innovation and reach for Granny's old standby, fix-it-all remedy: When in doubt, just run like a Republican.

Well done, Hillary. Somewhere from above (or, most likely, from below), departed Republican mudmeister Lee Atwater is cracking a grin, and Willie Horton is clanging on the bars of his prison cell in admiration. Clinton regained her footing this past week primarily by running a classic, sewer-level, negative, fear-based ad that evoked all the political, dirty-pool nightmares that Democrats at least claim to abhor (except those, of course, who were moved by the spot). Clinton's detestable ad was about as subtle as a full-throttled Swift Boat making a midnight run right through your backyard swimming pool.

Stripped to its core message, the craftily honed ad warned that if Obama were selected, your children could be murdered in their beds in the middle of the night as a feckless, greenhorn president slept right through some sort of global thermonuclear attack. The red phone's a-ringin', but the dopey new prez hazily snores right through it, while hazily dreaming of hope and change. (Perhaps Ambien ought to consider buying up the rights to the Clinton spot.)

Hats off, then, to Hillary and her public-relations chief, Mark Penn, for administering just the right dosage of dope. The spot worked so well — with exit polls showing that voters who made a last-minute decision went in droves for Clinton — that she couldn't resist reprising the same line during her Tuesday-night victory speech delivered to a cheering throng in Columbus. "When that phone rings at 3 a.m. in the White House," she said, "there's no time for speeches or on on-the-job training."

I have no doubt that as Bill Clinton's wife, Hillary spent many, many anxious nights alone by the phone at 3 in the morning, but I don't remember ever reading exactly which world crisis she solved while sitting around in her jammies. I can think of a few she helped ignite, like, say, Iraq, but I guess that wouldn't be fair to bring up. Might be sexist.

Now, to be gracious, one must concede that to be a winner, you have to win, and there's no crying by the loser allowed in politics. And Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton unreservedly won three out of four states. Now, to be realistic, Barack Obama has won twice as many primary and caucus states this season as Clinton, he continues to lead substantially in the popular vote, and he continues to hold what is a near mathematically insurmountable lead in elected delegates.

For two or three days, the Clinton campaign will spin itself — and the media — silly, breathlessly celebrating her overwhelming victories in Rhode Island and Ohio and her squeaker in Texas. After the confetti is swept and the champagne bottles are tossed, a more sober reality will take hold. Not just that her net gain of delegates this week will be, at most, in the single digits, but worse: There is no plausible scenario in which Clinton can win the nomination. At least, not democratically.

Seven more weeks of campaign slog through Wyoming, Mississippi, and into Pennsylvania. And then maybe tack on six more weeks, if you can believe it, into Indiana, West Virginia and a handful of other states, and into Puerto Rico on the 7th of June, quite literally into D-day. Whatever the outcome, even if Clinton wins all of the remaining contests — and some of them by veritable landslides — she will still be dozens of elected delegates behind Barack Obama.

Clinton will be exactly where she was the night before Ohio and Texas: in second place and with no way to become the nominee unless enough unelected superdelegates defy the popular will of the electorate and throw her the nomination (or unless you somehow believe that she can win every coming primary with a 20-point margin).

Indeed, as every major newsmagazine has pointed out this week, Clinton can't win an elected majority of delegates even if she triumphs in what are now likely to be rescheduled primaries in the cranky states of Michigan and Florida. Again, we'd be back to the superdelegates and, therefore, back to a dicey game of chicken by the Democratic Party elite. How many superdelegates are willing to politically die, or willing to spark an intraparty civil war, just to save Clinton's bacon?

"The 1968 Chicago convention would look like a picnic compared to what Denver would become," a longtime political biographer said on election eve, predicting a youth uprising at the site of this summer's Democratic Convention if the election is thrown to Clinton. "This isn't 40 years ago," he said. "Now, everyone's got a car. And everyone who believed in the change that Clinton scoffs at would wind up surrounding that convention."

Maybe. Maybe not. Who am I to predict that the Democrats are too smart to self-destruct in what should be, by all other measures, a watershed year? The more steely-eyed among us, then, would do well to psychologically prepare for the nomination going, somehow or other, to Hillary Clinton. Which means, in turn, that Democrats ought to simultaneously prepare to be beaten by John McCain.

Clinton's done McCain the favor of already producing his best general-election campaign. All he has to do is cut her answering the phone out of the last five seconds and splice his own mug in there instead. If Clinton succeeds in making what's politely called the "national-security issue" the center of the campaign by arguing she's a safer choice than Obama, then why wouldn't McCain argue that he's even better than she? McCain's already started that effort. If Hillary's nominated, he'll most likely end it.

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