Hillary Clinton’s commanding Democratic primary victories in Ohio and Rhode Island and her narrow win in Texas sent a gust of wind into the sagging sails of her presidential campaign. However, her chances of securing the party’s nomination in a democratically uncompromised manner are slim. Even if she were to win all twelve of the remaining primaries and caucuses by significant margins–a highly improbable development–Barack Obama would still retain the lead in pledged delegates. For Clinton to win, superdelegates would have to tip the nomination her way–against the express will of the majority of Democratic voters. Or her campaign would have to succeed in seating delegates from Florida and Michigan–in violation of mutually agreed-upon primary rules. Or both. That, for Clinton supporters, is the unhappy reality.
Adding to the tension of this moment for all Democrats is the knowledge that scorched-earth tactics are at least partly responsible for Clinton’s success on Super Tuesday II. Through its fearmongering over terrorism and national security and by taking advantage of smear campaigns against Obama’s patriotism, race and religion, the Clinton campaign has already sunk fairly low–but it could very well sink lower, threatening to negate the early promise of this historic contest, which has seen a massive spike in voter turnout, particularly among the young and minorities, and the enthusiastic rise of progressive values and issues. If the campaign continues this descent during the long slog to Pennsylvania on April 22 and beyond, the ultimate benefactor may well be neither small d-democracy nor the Democratic Party–but Senator John McCain and the GOP, who no doubt will spend the time taking notes and sharpening knives. Given the electoral challenge it faces, the Clinton camp ought to think long and hard about how it chooses to wage the remainder of this campaign.
Still, the Clinton campaign isn’t doing anything the right won’t do if Obama is the nominee, so his campaign could benefit from learning how to take this punch and counterpunch. And Obama has been fair game for some of Clinton’s attacks: on NAFTA, for instance, his campaign’s fuzziness–embodied by the embarrassing spectacle of top adviser Austan Goolsbee telling Canadians not to take seriously the candidate’s tough talk about renegotiating the agreement–has created a vulnerability that Clinton has every right to exploit.
This magazine has endorsed Barack Obama, and we continue to believe his candidacy represents the best chance to forge a new progressive majority. But we also believe that all voters–including those in Puerto Rico, who vote last, on June 7–should have the chance to decide for themselves. For this process to unfold fairly and be of continuing value to party and country, two steps must be taken.
First, Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean and state legislators should move rapidly to schedule new elections in Florida and Michigan–caucuses if primaries can’t be arranged by June. Both campaigns may object to this; they should be ignored. The results of the earlier rogue primaries–Obama’s name wasn’t even on the ballot in Michigan–cannot be counted. And the race is too close for these states to be excluded. This process must start immediately.
Second, the superdelegates must understand that it would be a disaster if they overturned the verdict of the voters, however contested and close that verdict might be. If Obama sustains his lead in pledged delegates, the superdelegates should consolidate his victory. If Clinton comes back and, with new results from Michigan and Florida, takes the lead, she should be awarded the nomination. However, if Clinton seeks to win the nomination in the back rooms after losing it in the caucuses and primaries, the young and idealistic who have flocked to Obama’s banner will be outraged, and their bitterness could make it impossible to unite the party. Clinton might get the nomination, but hers would be a Pyrrhic victory.
With Governor Mike Huckabee’s magnanimous concession speech and George W. Bush’s cuddly endorsement, Republicans are moving to unite around McCain–or at least paper over their differences–in order to beat back the successful surge of this political season: that of progressive Democratic and independent voters who deplore what Bush and his party have done to this country and who are turning out in droves to demand a different future. The true potential of this groundswell for change–as a movement and then as an enduring reality–exceeds the immediate electoral fortunes of either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. But, its fate, at least for the moment, is tied to how this nomination fight is conducted. After all these years, electoral politics is again a vehicle for raising expectations and spreading hope. It would be a shame if, in trying to settle the nomination, Democrats managed to lose sight of this larger vision.