Hillary on the High Road?
A referee would stop the fight. Hillary Clinton is exhausted, and her supporters are becoming increasingly demoralized. The candidate who tried to present herself as inevitable has been out-maneuvered nearly every step of the way by a prodigy with a warm and brilliant smile who still seems as energetic as an athlete doing calisthenics before a big game.
Texas and Ohio and several other states still have to vote. But there was a wistful quality and a strong hint of resignation in Senator Clinton’s voice at the end of the debate Thursday night when, after saying she was “honored to be here with Barack Obama,” she added:
Mrs. Clinton said later that she had not become pessimistic about her chances to win the democratic presidential nomination. But her words were an unmistakable echo of John Edwards’s remarks last month when he ended his campaign in New Orleans.
Just a few months ago, the prevailing wisdom in the world of punditry was that the Obama campaign was in trouble. Senator Clinton was enjoying a huge advantage in fund-raising and big leads in national polls.
Senator Obama, according to the conventional wisdom, was too soft. His call for a new kind of politics was naïve. And quietly, behind the scenes, the widespread view was that he couldn’t get enough white votes to secure the nomination.
There’s nothing like the terra firma of hindsight. Senator Obama, it turned out, was a far more gifted candidate and strategist than many of us gave him credit for. And Senator Clinton, for all of her command of the issues, was mediocre, at best, on the stump. He was the inspirational leader. She remained the wonk.
And then there was Bill. It was an article of faith that Senator Clinton’s campaign had a built-in advantage: her husband was the smartest Democrat of them all. But when you think about it, Bill Clinton was never much of a benefactor for others in his party.
When he took office in January 1993, Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. Less than two years into his presidency, the Republicans swept to majorities in both houses, putting Newt Gingrich in line to become speaker. A New York Times article at the time described Democrats in the House as “disoriented.”
The former president’s less-than-magic touch in Senator Clinton’s presidential campaign contributed to her devastating defeat in the South Carolina primary. He’s been kept more or less under control since then.
You can analyze the Clinton campaign every which way from sundown. But I suspect that the senator’s biggest hurdle from the beginning was the unforgiving nature of time. The tides of history change. Some of Barack Obama’s young and most fervent supporters were just three or four years old when Bill and Hillary Clinton were joined by Al and Tipper Gore for a remarkably successful bus tour through eight states to kick off their campaign against George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle in 1992.
The Clintons and the Gores seemed the embodiment of youthful promise, of change, and that turned the country on. Their campaign theme song was Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop,” with the crucial lyric, “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.”
Barack Obama, who is 46, the same age that Bill Clinton was on that bus tour, has managed in his campaign to make the Clintons seem the embodiment of yesterday. “Something better awaits us,” he told a cheering crowd after his victory in Iowa, “if we have the courage to reach for it.”
Senator Clinton’s options are not officially closed. But to have any chance at all, she would need a sudden startling string of prodigious victories against a candidate who is better-financed and riding a tremendous wave of momentum.
At the debate on Thursday night, Senator Clinton, who is 60, passed on a number of opportunities to harshly criticize Senator Obama. She refused to say that he was not ready to serve as the nation’s commander in chief. And she suggested that she does not intend to pursue a ruinous fight for superdelegates at the Democratic convention.