The Decline of Hillary Clinton
Let us begin with the sad story of the last few weeks. Since Super Tuesday Barack Obama has been a clear favorite to win the Democratic nomination. After winning the Ohio primary and the popular vote in Texas (where she eventually fell behind in total Democratic delegates), Clinton decided to stay in the race, counting on three stratagems. First, she hoped that party authorities would not only excuse, but endorse, her decision to ignore party rules and field campaigns in Michigan and Florida, thus awarding her a majority of those states delegates. That has gotten nowhere, and in the long run the precedent this sets will be good for the Democratic Party. Second, she had to win over remaining superdelegates, calling in all the chits that she and her husband had accumulated over the last 16 years. And thirdly, she had to go into attack mode against Barack Obama and exploit every possible weakness he might have, saying that he was not a Muslim "as far as I know," (!!!), criticizing him for not leaving his church, and now, citing his connection to William Ayres. None of this seems in the slightest to be working. Major superdelegates are moving to Obama every week, nothing is going to change about Michigan and Florida, and voters even in Pennsylvania, upon which she is now counting, her attacks seem to be disgusting the voters and turning them against her. Nonetheless she shows no signs of letting up. Just this morning something new has been added. Speaking (like her opponent) with unfortunate freedom at a fund-raiser, she has argued in effect that the active Democrats who have given Obama so many caucus victories should be disregarded because they represent extremes. I quote:
"We have been less successful in caucuses because it brings out the activist base of the Democratic Party. MoveOn didn't even want us to go into Afghanistan. I mean, that's what we're dealing with. And you know they turn out in great numbers. And they are very driven by their view of our positions, and it's primarily national security and foreign policy that drives them. I don't agree with them. They know I don't agree with them. So they flood into these caucuses and dominate them and really intimidate people who actually show up to support me." [This appears among other things to be an invitation to her supporters not to take her recent leftward movement on Iraq too seriously.]
Now Richard Nixon was a young man from Southern California with something of a talent for politics who wanted to be President. Certainly he could also have done well on Survivor. He ran very dirty campaigns for Congress and the Senate (although they did not differ in their red-baiting from many others in those days), and he got his big break, the Vice Presidential nomination in 1952, partly by stabbing his own Governor Earl Warren in the back. I am not suggesting that he made a net positive contribution to American politics or American life over the following 40 years--he most certainly did not. But he got into the White House largely because, from 1952 onward, party loyalty was one of his first principles. Beginning in 1954 he was always available to stump for Republican candidates of all types all over the country. He complained in that year that Republicans could not afford to waste time complaining that some of their candidates were too liberal or too conservative. Their control of Congress was threatened--in fact, they did lose it--and in his opinion, every Republican vote counted. For the same reason he refused openly to condemn the main extremist in his party, Joe McCarthy--because he knew how much large numbers of Republicans loved him. In 1956 he was humiliated when President Eisenhower publicly suggested that Nixon might prefer to serve in the cabinet in his second term rather than remain Vice President--this after Ike had just suffered a near-fatal heart attack--but Nixon swallowed his pride and reply that no, the Vice Presidency would suit him just fine. By 1960 he had built up so much credit with his own party nationally that Nelson Rockefeller--richer, smoother, and a fresher face--found that he had no chance of winning the nomination and gave up in advance. Nixon barely lost that election, but his standing among Republicans was undamaged. Even his California defeat in 1962 did not as it turned out change things very much.
Loyalty won out again in 1964 when the controversial Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination. Nixon undoubtedly knew Goldwater's candidacy was doomed, but he also knew that Goldwater's forces were going to remain powerful among the Republicans. Nelson Rockefeller refused to support the ticket; Nixon campaigned loyally for it. Four years later in 1968 Ronald Reagan appeared to have inherited Goldwater's mantle, but Goldwater's own machine was working for Nixon. Again he was nominated and this time he won the election. His cabinet included several liberal Republicans even though conservatives dominated the White House staff. He fell victim to his own paranoia when his men were caught bugging the DNC.
There is, of course, a generational aspect to all this. Nixon was a GI and a team player. He knew that the best way to realize his ambition was to play the role of a loyal party man. The Clintons, on the other hand, are Boomers who feel that everything they want is theirs by right because they are so special (and, in her case, because she represents generations of hitherto excluded women.) Bill Clinton actually showed very little concern for his own party during his
eight years in office. He made no serious effort to regain the Congress in 1996, for instance--he seemed to enjoy the role of restraining the Republican majority. Now Hillary is doing her best to tear the party apart in an against-the-odds effort to keep her hopes alive. No one else seems to find this a very pretty spectacle.
I am pleased the more and more senior Democrats, including Howard Dean, Bill Richardson, and now Sam Nunn, are in various ways trying to keep my party on track. I am also pleased that Obama, although he has made one major slip and looked awfully tired the other night (who wouldn't?) is by and large not taking the bait. An Obama victory in Pennsylvania no longer looks impossible, and a really big Clinton victory there looks less and less likely. I shall be delighted if Jimmy Carter and, above all, Al Gore, then step forward to say that enough is enough. It's time to return to an earlier definition of affirmative action--that it's a right to have your chance. Hillary Clinton has had her chance and the Democratic Party prefers Barack Obama. So, to judge from every trial heat poll, does the country.
My favorite quote on these matters comes from my very distant cousin Horace Greeley, the 19th-century Whig/Republican editor, who was in fact a Prophet like Clinton and myself, but who learned a hard-headed attitude about politics at a relatively early age. In his autobiography, Reflections of a Busy Life, he described the Whig convention of 1840, which has some parallels with the situation Democrats face today. The Democratic incumbent Martin Van Buren was obviously vulnerable, partly because of a widespread economic crisis, and the Whigs had their first real chance to get into power. The leading candidates at the Convention were Henry Clay, already a national figure for thirty years and Greeley's own political idol, and William Henry Harrison. Greeley described the proceedings and their outcome thusly.
"The sittings of the Convention were protracted through three or four days during which several ballots for President were taken. There was a plurality though not a majority in favor of nominating Mr Clay but it was in good part composed of delegates from States which could not rationally be expected to vote for any Whig candidate On the other hand delegates from Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana said, "We can carry our States for General Harrison but not for Clay." New York and New Jersey cast their earlier for General Scott but stood ready to unite on General Harrison whenever it should be clear that he could be nominated and elected and they ultimately did so. The delegates from Maine and Massachusetts contributed powerfully to secure General Harrison's ultimate nomination. Each delegation cast its vote through a committee and the votes were added up by a general committee which reported no names and no figures but simply that no choice had been effected until at length the Scott votes were all cast for Harrison and his nomination thus effected when the result was proclaimed.
" Governor Seward who was in Albany (there were no telegraphs in those days), and Mr Weed, who was present and very influential in producing the result, were strongly blamed by the ardent uncalculating supporters of Mr Clay as having cheated him out of the nomination. I could never see with what reason. They judged that he could not be chosen if nominated while another could be and acted accordingly. If politics do not meditate the achievement of beneficent ends through the choice and use of the safest and most effective means I wholly misapprehend them."
Thank you, cousin Horace. I could never have said it half as well myself.
Now Senator Clinton is now arguing privately (most notably in a famous phone call to Bill Richardson which she refuses to discuss) that only she can be elected, but the polls say otherwise. In addition, her behavior will keep a lot of voters (especially younger ones) away from the polls in November in the most unlikely event that she can be successful. Anyone who really wants the Republicans out of the White House should in my opinion face the facts. Obama not only deserves the nomination but remains by far our best hope. I hope I do not have to write another post like this in a month or so.