Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Bill's Chill Pill

Bill Clinton, invoking the slang of his 1990s heyday, told Democrats last week to "chill". Everything, he said, would be all right regardless of how the party's current primary campaign ultimately unfolded. Clinton obviously speaks from a biased perspective—he wants to silence those who insist his wife's perseverance is helping the GOP—but he also understands the dynamics of politics better than most of his peers.

He knows, first and foremost, that this has not been an especially bitter campaign. Nobody has crossed a line from which they cannot retreat. Either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama could endorse the other without having any truly nasty sound bites thrown back in their faces. As I believe I've mentioned before, George H.W. Bush called Ronald Reagan's supply side tax proposals "voodoo economics" back in 1980, yet still ran victoriously as the Gipper's vice presidential running mate. No putdown that memorable has been spoken by either Democratic contender in 2008.

People who care deeply about politics sometimes forget that they live in a bubble of information that is largely unfamiliar to most of their fellow citizens. As high as primary turnout has been this year, the vast majority of Americans are not paying close attention to the current campaign. They do not watch Fox News or CNN or MSNBC. They know that Clinton and Obama are duking it out for the Democratic nomination, but they aren't familiar with too many of the details. These people will make up the majority of the electorate in the general election, and they will be untainted by all the charges and countercharges being leveled at moment.

By now, it is fairly clear how things are going to turn out for the Democrats this summer. Most likely, Barack Obama will hold onto his lead in the popular vote and the delegate count, winning, say, Oregon and North Carolina, and will coast to a fairly easy victory in Denver. Indeed, should that happen, making it fairly clear that even do-overs in Florida and Michigan would not save her, Hillary Clinton will, despite what she says now, probably concede the race prior to the Denver convention.

Many women voters will likely be upset with the treatment Senator Clinton has received from the media and from her fellow Democrats. But there is absolutely nothing about John McCain's testosterone-filled campaign of perpetual international combat that will appeal to the average feminist. McCain may want to woo frustrated independent women with a female vice presidential nominee, but the GOP bench is pretty thin in that department. So given the choice between the most progressive presidential nominee in years and a man who will appoint anti-abortion Supreme Court justices, Hillary Clinton's voters will turn out for Obama.

The other possibility, of course, is that Obama's candidacy will implode, he will lose almost all the rest of the primaries between now and June, and the two Democratic frontrunners will be virtually deadlocked heading into Denver. Should that occur, a movement of Super Delegates in Clinton's favor will not seem nearly as suicidal as it does now. Indeed, if Hillary runs the table for the next ninety days, even many of Obama's supporters will start to get cold feet.

Assuming Obama has not been further tarnished—whatever lead he currently enjoys, he cannot afford another Jeremiah Wright episode—Clinton would, at this point, almost certainly select him as her running mate. This would presumably mute, at least to some degree, the potential outrage from liberal activists and African Americans at Obama's come-from-ahead loss. And a Clinton-Obama ticket would be tough for John McCain to attack or beat (not that he wouldn't try).

Finally, if another scandal causes Obama to go into public opinion freefall, then nobody (except perhaps the Daily Kos dead-enders) could possibly begrudge Senator Clinton the nomination. Indeed, under such circumstances the party would no doubt be grateful for the chance to avoid disaster. Having invested this much in her race for the White House, and having seen the damaging revelations that have faced Senator Obama so far, this possibility may be exactly what keeps Hillary Clinton from throwing in the towel.

The problem with predicting how people will feel in August is that we have no idea what the political landscape will be at that time. Today is April Fool's Day. Just three months ago, when we popped the corks to welcome in the New Year, we had absolutely no idea that we'd be looking at an unresolved, roller-coaster Democratic contest by the end of March. So let's stop worrying about who will or won't be angry when the Democrats select their nominee more than four months from now.

Let's chill with Bill.

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