Hillary Clinton Finished?

March 3, 2008 by  


Courtesy Clifford Orwin. The Globe and Mail.

“… The senator’s three remaining gambits will fail – well before the convention…”

If it’s never over till the fat lady sings, then that stately figure is already tuning her vocal cords. And making her ponderous way to the headquarters of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Ms. Clinton is finished. Indeed. she has as much as conceded that fact. She’s done so with her usual feistiness, vowing to press forward on three remaining fronts. All these, however, are bound to prove dead ends. She met her Waterloo when Senator Barack Obama, having won eight straight primaries, surpassed her in the tally of elected delegates. It’s all downhill from here.

What are Ms. Clinton’s three remaining gambits? First, to win the primaries in Ohio and Texas next month and in Pennsylvania in April. Her advisers once referred to these as firewall states, but that sounds like mere bravado now. The voters in these states, after all, inhabit the same demographic categories as those in other states, and in recent primaries all those categories have broken toward Mr. Obama. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ms. Clinton actually lost one or more of the three, but even should she win them all, that won’t save her. For given the way the Democrats apportion delegates, she would have to win by pipedream margins (20 per cent or more) in order to regain the lead in elected delegates. In the meantime, Mr. Obama will be racking up new delegates elsewhere.

Ms. Clinton’s advisers know this, which explains her second gambit. This is her desperate (indeed ludicrous) plea to reinstate the results of the illicit Florida and Michigan primaries. How can a primary be illicit? When a grandstanding state party organization holds it earlier than the national party will permit, with an eye to enhancing their state’s influence on the process. Both states were warned that the delegates thus elected would not be seated. These elections were farces. Mr. Obama wasn’t even on the ballot in Michigan and the candidates had promised to abide by the party’s decision and not to campaign or advertise. The turnouts were predictably low.

But Ms. Clinton won both contests, so now pleads for the seating of the delegates lest the voters of these states be disenfranchised. It’s been expected that the convention would seat them, but only after the candidate was chosen, restricting their role to endorsing a fait accompli. The party can’t possibly relent on this point, for if it did, it would lose all control of the scheduling of primaries, and it just can’t let that happen.

In any case, these elections were fiascoes, so they would have to be held again, at great cost and distraction to the party and the candidates. But this wouldn’t suit Ms. Clinton, since there’s no guarantee she’d win this time around. And even if she did, once again, it wouldn’t be by enough to redress her deficit of elected delegates. No matter how you slice it, she won’t regain the lead in that crucial contest. Mr. Obama has therefore won the nomination.

As you can see, I’m fixated on the count of elected delegates. If you follow these matters closely, you may object: What about the “superdelegates?” For the benefit of anyone who doesn’t know, “super” here means “unelected.” (What politician wouldn’t feel super, holding office without having to be elected?) These superdelegates represent Ms. Clinton’s final hope, but they too will prove superdisappointments.

Superdelegates, who account for 796 of the total of 4,049, are recruited from the ranks of party notables. In 1972, the Democratic Party “democratized” its selection procedures by magnifying the role of the primaries. In 1980, it came to regret this, so it instituted these superdelegates lest the party get so democratic as to choose an unelectable candidate. So we now have a counterdemocratic principle inserted in a boisterously democratic system. But this was just to add ineptitude to folly. These superdelegates have yet to decide a nomination, and they certainly won’t decide this one.

As of a week ago, 204 of these nabobs were committed to Ms. Clinton and just 99 to Mr. Obama. But that was before Mr. Obama’s recent primary romps, and even so, 493 remain undecided. The commitments of superdelegates are nonbinding, and the ones pledged to Ms. Clinton won’t last. There is no way unelected delegates will overrule the decision of elected ones. That just won’t happen.

Consider the following scenario: The first serious African-American candidate for president emerges with a majority of elected delegates and is frustrated by the unelected ones. Tell us, party chairman Howard Dean, would you look forward to trying to mobilize the black vote in November? (Or the anti-war vote, or the youth vote, or just the goldarned all-purpose Change We Can Believe In vote?) Don’t scratch your head, Howard: that was a rhetorical question.

In fact, given the party’s powerful interest in anointing its candidate sooner rather than later (as far in advance of the convention as possible, so as to focus on defeating John McCain), you can bet that the superdelegates committed to Ms. Clinton will also crumble sooner rather than later. It doesn’t matter how many of them Madeline Albright is sent to glad-hand, or even the erstwhile First Gentleman himself. Well before the convention, Mr. Obama’s victory will be clear. And Ms. Clinton will come under crushing pressure to release any superdelegates remaining to her. The envelope, please: Obama, 796 superdelegates; Clinton, 0.

I’d stake my reputation as a pundit on this, if I had one.

Credit: Professor of political science at the University of Toronto and distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution

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