One of the oddest aspects of this extremely odd extended primary has been the entire press corps to indulge its fantasies of victory long after they lost any basis in reality. As one unnamed Clinton official admitted recently, “We lost this thing in February.” Well, yeah. Politico‘s Jim VanderHei and Mike Allen pointed out in mid-April, “One big fact has largely been lost in the recent coverage of the Democratic presidential race: Hillary Rodham Clinton has virtually no chance of winning.” They cited a Clinton adviser putting her chances of success at 10 percent. Somehow, the punditocracy pretended not to notice.

Of course, it was possible, but hardly plausible, that some combination of events might throw the nomination Clinton’s way. Sure, she might have won 70-plus percent of the remaining popular vote. Sure, the superdelegates might decide en masse to ignore the will of voters, insult the party’s base among African-Americans and deny the nomination to its first black presidential candidate. Sure, party and elected officials might decide to reject the candidate who has proven able to rejuvenate the party by raising mountains of money on the Internet, appealing to independents and Republicans and exciting young people in a manner unseen since John Kennedy, in favor of one whose negative ratings considerably exceed her positives and who energizes the other side’s base as no one else on earth… but, um, why?

The tendency toward faith-based analyses had many causes. Reporters relish conflict, however hypothetical, and fear drawing conclusions. The Clintons control a lot of purse strings. But it can hardly be a coincidence that the punditocracy swung behind the Clintons and against Obama just as her campaign began to rely on the same set of right-wing talking points that Republican presidential campaigns have employed against Democrats since 1968. Obama was too liberal. Obama was too effeminate. Obama was too elitist. Obama could not win the votes of “working, hard-working Americans, white Americans.”

It was an amazing turn of events. Recall that in 2006, the late Jerry Falwell opined, “I certainly hope that Hillary is the candidate. Because nothing will energize my [constituency] like Hillary Clinton. If Lucifer ran, he wouldn’t.” David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union, added, “Hillary is a left-wing Democrat, a collectivist, who is hostile to most of the values we conservatives hold dear.”

That was then. But once the nomination began to go Obama’s way, the Clintons pivoted right. Hillary harped on Bill Ayers’s terrorist past and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s lunatic statements and told an interviewer that there was no basis for rumors that Obama was a Muslim “as far as I know.” Bill Clinton said he looked forward to her victory over Obama so we could have an election between “two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interest of this country.” The candidate embraced McCain’s intellectually indefensible gas tax holiday and, when questioned about it, repudiated a lifetime of high-minded wonkery by insisting that economists enjoyed no special expertise when it came to economics. Bill Clinton made the ethos of his wife’s campaign explicit in Clarksburg, West Virginia, when he announced, “The great divide in this country is not by race or even income, it’s by those who think they are better than everyone else and think they should play by a different set of rules.” His target was not the corporate elite but a liberal black man raised, like himself, by a lower-middle-class single mother.

Conservatives were quick to capitalize on their latest conversion. National Review‘s Rich Lowry cooed, “Hillary has shown a Nixonian resilience and she’s morphing into Scoop Jackson. She’s entering the culture war as a general…. She’s fighting the left and she’s capturing the center. She’s denounced She’s become the Lieberman of the Democratic party.” The Weekly Standard‘s Noemie Emery purred, “She’s running the classic Republican race against her opponent, running on toughness and use-of-force issues, the campaign that the elder George Bush ran against Michael Dukakis, that the younger George Bush waged in 2000 and then again against John Kerry, and that Ronald Reagan–‘The Bear in the Forest’–ran against Jimmy Carter and Walter F. Mondale. And she’s doing it with much the same symbols.” And with Olympic-level chutzpah, New York Times neocon William Kristol attacked the “liberal media” for “failing to give Hillary Clinton the respect she deserves.”

These two phenomena–the pretend primary and the Clintons’ right-wing run at Obama–are hardly unrelated. Clinton was tapping into a powerful ideological strain within the punditocracy, where the default position is pro-war and pro-McCain. Suddenly, Obama’s tardiness in denouncing the nutty notions of his friend and pastor was somehow more egregious than her decision to support Bush’s war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, wasted trillions of dollars and destroyed America’s reputation the world over. Indeed, the pundits’ refusal to recognize the reality of Obama’s victory is reminiscent of their refusal to focus on the obvious deceptions and dissimulations that led to the Iraq catastrophe. Sure, it was always possible that Iraqis would welcome their invaders as liberators, embrace democracy overnight, make peace with Israel and spread liberal humanist values in a region where it has no cultural roots. Pigs might fly; you can’t prove a negative.

I liked and admired both Clintons before this campaign began and hope to do so again. But right now, all I can say is, “Good night and good luck.” The voters weren’t buying, and Obama emerged from this ordeal bloodied but unbowed. He stands poised–God willing–to become America’s most progressive President in more than half a century. And given the state of the nation after eight years of George W. Bush’s malicious (and mendacious) misrule, he damn well better be…