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The Last Clinton Power Play

On Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton gathered her supporters in a literal concrete bunker several stories beneath the surface of the earth, with walls thick enough to block out all cellular reception and no TV monitors or any other medium of … Read More

By / June 5, 2008

On Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton gathered her supporters in a literal concrete bunker several stories beneath the surface of the earth, with walls thick enough to block out all cellular reception and no TV monitors or any other medium of communication with the outside world. There, amid cheers of "Denver! Denver!" she congratulated her friend Senator Obama for having run a sporting race, proclaimed herself the rightful victor, and appealed to Americans young and old to pawn their video games and withdraw from their pension accounts (respectively) in order to keep her historic campaign squarely on track to the White House. Yet by the following evening, her aides announced the suspension of her campaign and her endorsement of Barack Obama.

What transpired in those fewer-than-24 hours? Only the most audacious squeeze play of Bill and Hillary Clinton's political careers, and — because of its spectacular failure — the last.

Clinton's Tuesday night pseudo-victory speech was an attempt to extort concessions from the Obama campaign and the Democratic party, including a right of first refusal to the vice-presidential nomination, a pledge not to put any other woman on the ticket, and an indefinite grace period in which Clinton would keep her campaign formally intact and concede nothing.

The threat, in case her demands were not met, was clear: Clinton might not be able to win, but she could undermine the legitimacy of Obama's nomination, whip her supporters into a frenzy, and ensure John McCain's election. To make clear her assessment of the balance of power in the party and put the screws to Obama and the DNC, she recruited, of all people, Bob Johnson (yes, that Bob Johnson) and Lanny Davis (yes, that Lanny Davis) to attempt to seize control of Obama's vice-presidential selection, and tried to mobilize support on Capitol Hill to bolster that coup.

The Clintons' power play failed because — like Gorbachev, Honecker, and Ceau?escu before them — they grossly miscalculated both the breadth and depth of their power. On Wednesday, Ed Rendell, whose machine delivered Pennsylvania to Clinton, told NY1 that "[t]here’s no bargaining…You don't bargain with the Presidential nominee. Even if you're Hillary Clinton and you have 18 million votes, you don't bargain." Maxine Waters flipped her support to Obama, while Charlie Rangel announced that "[u]nless she has some good reasons– which I can’t think of– I really think we ought to get on with endorsements [of Obama]." Hilary Rosen, one of Clinton's chief backers among Democratic insiders, switched to Obama and rebuked Clinton in sharp and unequivocal terms: "I am not a bargaining chip. I am a Democrat." That's what happened publicly. Just imagine what her remaining supporters told her in private as they scurried from a sinking ship.

On its own terms, the Clintons' last, failed power play is a fascinating story of cloak-and-dagger politics, but its real importance is what it portends for the campaign going forward. Clinton herself has not yet come to terms with the significance of the dissolution of her core of support; the AP reports that she is "exploring options to retain her delegates." MoDo reports that she "has told some Democrats recently that she wanted Obama to agree to allow a roll call vote…so that the delegates of states she won would cast the first ballot for her at the convention," apparently unaware, as the Economist puts it, that "[t]he convention is supposed to be a coronation, in this case of Mr Obama. It loses some of its impact if nearly half the states stand up and say they proudly support the next president of the United States…Hillary Clinton." In other words, she still thinks she can dictate terms.

If Obama takes the bait — fortunately, the indications are that he will not — and centers his strategy on placating the Harriet Christians of the world rather than expanding his appeal to independents and Republicans, he'll hand John McCain his best shot of winning.

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