I want to tackle this RFK thing from a slightly different angle. Let’s for the moment put aside all talk of assassination and look at this from the perspective of what she was asked. She was asked why people are asking her to drop out. We need to remind ourselves that she was attempting to answer that question. It’s a question that asks her to step into a non-supporter’s shoes and look at things from their perspective for a moment. Now, her answer to this question was that she didn’t know why people were asking her to drop out and that she found it somewhat mystifying given the history of long primaries in the past. She chose two poor examples to make her point, as the 1968 contest started and ended later than this one, and her husband’s 1992 campaign was effectively (if not mathematically) over in March. But it’s not so important that her examples were bad…what’s important is that she seems not to understand why she is being asked to drop out. So, I’ll explain it for her…real slow.
We have reached a point in the campaign where Barack Obama has won the majority of delegates that were available to win through the contests that have been held. What this means is that Barack Obama will win the nomination (provided he is still alive to accept it) unless an overwhelming number of superdelegates decide that he is unelectable. And I don’t mean that they will decide that he is less electable. They will only overturn the expressed will of the voters if they decide is absolutely unelectable. That’s their job and that’s why the superdelegates exist. Hillary Clinton doesn’t have much control over whether or not Barack Obama is unelectable. If her opposition research team has unearthed some horrible secret that will doom Obama once the Republicans get a hold of it, she should by all means come forward with that information before Obama accepts the nomination. But, otherwise, she should cease arguing that she is more electable. No one cares if she is more electable so long as Obama is electable. But let me make this more clear. Should anything happen that renders Barack Obama unelectable between now and the convention, the delegates (who are all technically free agents) will be free to choose someone else as the nominee. This is true even on the first ballot where most delegates are ‘pledged’ to support a particular candidate. They are ‘pledged’, but they are not ‘obligated’. They can choose to vote for whomever they want. And, provided a compelling enough reason (think Eliot Spitzer) they will do so.
What this means is that Hillary Clinton can be the nominee if Obama is somehow rendered unelectable (through scandal or sudden death), and that she can even be elected on the first ballot. And, because she ran a strong campaign and received nearly 50% of the vote and 50% of the delegates, she has a far, far stronger claim to be the back-up nominee than the third place finisher John Edwards, or any of the other candidates. She doesn’t need to win more delegates to improve her case and she doesn’t need to win more popular votes to improve her case.
So, let’s imagine a hypothetical situation where Barack Obama is no longer with us for some reason when we get to Denver. Anyone can be nominated on the first ballot, even people that were not candidates in the race. Let’s say that Al Gore were to be nominated. If all of Clinton’s pledged delegates and announced superdelegates stayed with her on the first ballot, she’d be in a commanding position. But she’d still need to win over some Obama delegates to secure the nomination. It’s true that she can lower that number by winning a few more delegates out of Puerto Rico, South Dakota, and Montana, but not by much. Her real mission would be to woo undecided superdelegates and Obama delegates to prefer her to Al Gore. And by running a negative campaign all the way through to the end, she will have given the Obama delegates and many of the undecided supers more reason to oppose her candidacy.
In other words, she is making her nomination less, rather than more, likely by scrapping for every last vote and delegate, and in doing it in a negative way. That is precisely why her active candidacy right now makes no strategic sense if her goal is to win this year’s nomination.
So, why are people asking her to drop out then? The answer is multifaceted but still rather simple. She has already established her case to be the fall-back candidate should anything disastrous happen to Obama or his campaign. That’s done. Nothing is guaranteed to her, but she can’t improve her case through further campaigning. Meanwhile, she is doing four things that are hurting Obama. She is imposing an opportunity cost on him by forcing him to campaign in places like Puerto Rico that have no votes in November. That costs time and money and it prevents him from focusing on John McCain, on building his campaign team, and on expanding the map of potentially competitive states. She is also actively delegitimizing the process by which he won the nomination and hardening her supporters feelings against Obama. This makes it harder to unite the party for the main contest. She is arguing that Obama is not an adequate nominee and strongly suggesting he is unelectable. It’s never good to have a fellow Democrat running down the qualifications of the presidential nominee. Lastly, she is sucking up money and volunteer hours for her own campaign, much of which should be made available for Obama and other Democrats running for office. And she isn’t paying her bills. For all these reasons, there is a real cost to Clinton staying in the race, and she doesn’t get anything tangible out of it except to worsen her chances of winning a brokered convention.
I really want to hammer home the point that Clinton is not improving her chances of being elected president this year by continuing her campaign. She’s making her chances worse. This is a critical point which is vital to understanding why people are insistent that she drop out. By her own logic, should something happen to Obama she would be in the best position to be the nominee, but that will not change by her continuing to actively run for president. It can only harm her chances by hardening opposition to her candidacy.
There is a small subset of the Democratic Party that thinks that Barack Obama is already unelectable, and they want Clinton to be the nominee to save the party from itself. But these people need to accept that, like pornography, the delegates will know unelectability when they see it. And they are not currently seeing it. If they come to see it for any reason, they will not vote for him in Denver. And they will choose Clinton as the alternative unless they deeply resent her or they see her as also being unelectable.
To be charitable, Clinton’s recent comments about hardworking white voters and the RFK assassination have not improved her perceived electability. She would do better to stop antagonizing Obama supporters and undecided supers, and to get some rest and lay low for a while, than to continue what even the Governor of her state sees as desperate tactics.
As it is, she has already ruined her chances of being on the ticket as vice-president and is rapidly losing her chance to be the second choice candidate, should something tragic happen. So, if we are judging things by how they help Clinton, she has not been too successful lately. But if we are judging things by how they hurt Obama, she has been all too successful.
For these reasons, it really appears that one of two things is the case. Either Clinton is somewhat unhinged and is engaged in self-destructive behavior, or she is actively undermining Obama’s chances, not of winning the nomination, but of winning the election in November.
And in either of these two cases, it is necessary for responsible people to ask her to drop out. That’s the answer to the question she could not answer.