The hole the US Democratic party is digging for itself just keeps getting deeper. In the past few days, after the grisly reappearance of Jeremiah Wright – the former friend who came not to praise Barack Obama but to bury him – Hillary Clinton’s standing in the polls has improved again. In Tuesday’s primaries, she is hoping for a comfortable win in Indiana and a close result in North Carolina, a dramatic change from just a month ago.
By Clive Crook
Meanwhile, Mr Obama continues to attract support from the unelected “super-delegates” who will almost certainly settle this thing. To understand why this is happening – why the super-delegates are choosing Mr Obama even as the wavering rank-and-file is having doubts – one must heed their growing alarm at the emerging prospect.
Despite Mrs Clinton’s recovery, Mr Obama will almost certainly end up with a majority of elected delegates and, unless the wheels come off completely, a majority of the popular vote (on most of the ways the Democratic party has provided for arriving at that figure).
For the super-delegates to rebuff Mr Obama under those circumstances would be a huge gamble. It would dismay and infuriate his supporters, many of them engaged by politics for the first time, and especially the black Americans who are now overwhelmingly on his side. Yet real doubts have arisen about Mr Obama’s potency as a general election candidate. The mood of uncommitted Democratic voters has shifted and if the whole nominating process were to start afresh (one shudders at the thought), Mrs Clinton might well be the favourite to win.
So you see the dilemma. The uncommitted super-delegates have only themselves – and the designers of this insane electoral procedure – to blame, because they could have settled the race sooner, while Mr Obama was riding high. But they did not. By staying on the fence so long, they have contrived a situation in which they might feel compelled to nominate Mr Obama, while believing him to be the weaker of the two. If so, that sentiment will communicate itself to the Democratic electorate and beyond.
But let us pause to ask: are wavering Democrats right to be moving to Mrs Clinton? Is it true that she would be a more effective opponent against John McCain? I think not. I think that the super-delegates choosing Mr Obama are doing what is best for the Democrats’ prospects in November, even if they do not realise it.
Undeniably, Mr Obama has had a bad few weeks. One takes Mrs Clinton’s tireless tenacity for granted and, by that daunting standard, Mr Obama has sometimes looked weary. Mr Wright’s joyful outburst of narcissism, bigotry and paranoia at (where else?) Washington’s National Press Club could not have been better timed to hammer Mr Obama’s unsteady poll numbers. The “remarks taken out of context” defence of the egregious pastor evaporated instantly. Questions about Mr Obama’s judgment in maintaining a close relationship with the man over many years were posed anew.
Previously, in a speech on race that was widely praised, Mr Obama had refrained from an outright repudiation of Mr Wright, while explaining where and why he disagreed. Responding this time, an angry Mr Obama threw the raving reverend under the bus, commandeered the vehicle and reversed it back over him. It ought to have left nobody in any doubt about his feelings – but it came late.
That followed Bittergate: the uproar, if you recall, aroused by Mr Obama’s comments about voters who cling out of bitterness to guns, God, deportation and domestic manufacturers. Those sentiments did not endear him to white working-class Democrats, who had reservations to start with. They also suggested that Mr Obama’s anti-trade and anti-business posture might be insincere. I wish it were, but most Democrats disagree. Hence, Mrs Clinton’s renewed support in big populous states that will carry a lot of electoral college clout in November.
None of this can be waved away, but still I think Mrs Clinton is the weaker general election candidate. The view that she has more electoral punch comes partly from the entrails of dead psephologists. Forget previous elections: the rules have changed. John McCain is a very odd Republican, appealing more to centrists than to many in the conservative wing of his own party. In their own ways, the two Democrats are even odder and have divided the party along new lines. Claims that, to win, the Democrats must have the support of this demographic slice, or that swing state, need to be heavily discounted.
Also, Clintonistas delude themselves that their candidate has been fully vetted, whereas Mr Obama is only now coming under scrutiny. This is an error. Mr Obama is not probing the many scandals of her past, because his campaign is positioned to be above all that. And Mr McCain is not doing it either – not yet – because he expects to be facing Mr Obama in November. If Mrs Clinton were nominated, you can bet that the scandals of the 1990s and before would be dusted down and freshened up.
This points to the largest issue for Democrats to bear in mind. In US politics, Mrs Clinton is a uniquely divisive figure. To be sure, division is her element – as one can see, she relishes the fight – and a little of that in a politician is a good thing. But nothing could energise wavering Republicans to turn out for Mr McCain, or de-energise Mr Obama’s bright-eyed new
Democrats, so thoroughly as the living prospect of another Clinton presidency. My guess is that she, not Mr Obama, would be the bigger gamble.
The Financial Times