Wednesday, March 05, 2008

How Hillary Clinton Can Win

Jonathan Alter, senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, does the math here to “show how deep a hole [Hillary Clinton] is in”, and inadvertently shows how Mrs. Clinton can win.

Mr. Alter uses the Slate Delegates Calculator to demonstrate that even if Mrs. Clinton wins all the primaries in the remaining states including Texas and Ohio, many by wide margins, except Vermont, where she ties (the media has already called it for Barack Obama, but anyway), and goes on to manage to seat Florida and Michigan delegates, she would still have fewer pledged delegates than Mr. Obama. I'll buy that. But he makes a huge leap in logic when he goes from there to assert the following:

So no matter how you cut it, Obama will almost certainly end the primaries with a pledged-delegate lead, courtesy of all those landslides in February. Hillary would then have to convince the uncommitted superdelegates to reverse the will of the people. Even coming off a big Hillary winning streak, few if any superdelegates will be inclined to do so. For politicians to upend what the voters have decided might be a tad, well, suicidal.

But Mr. Alter does not stop to consider what would cause such an incredible turnaround in public sentiment over the course of the rest of the primaries. The prevailing pattern has been that the more the local voters get to know Mr. Obama, the more they like him. Time has always favored Mr. Obama. For the voters to turn away from him like that requires a sea change in public perception. The media appears to be stepping up its scrutiny of Mr. Obama, and it is almost certain that this will continue - the show must go on; that, and buyer’s remorse and a sense of guilt.Still, something must happen that forces the public to see Mr. Obama in a starkly different, unsympathetic light. Several avenues for such an undertaking have been emerging:

First, there is the “experience” trope. This has actually been a continuous talking point for Mrs. Clinton and her campaign, but has so far appeared to have little effect. I only mention this here because the “3 AM” TV ad, coming out on the eve of the Texas and Ohio primaries, has received much media attention (the Obama rebuttal has effective content but it getting far less attention) and caused speculation that it could have a meaningful effect on the primary voters. No doubt experts will point to it if Mrs. Clinton does unexpectedly well in Texas and Ohio. But Mrs. Clinton cannot point to anything substantive either when it comes to experience dealing with national security crises, and it’s hard to imagine that the Obama campaign will not be reminding voters of it and effectively sealing off this angle.

Second, there is the “out-to-lunch legislator” angle, specifically, all the “present” (instead of “aye” or “nay”) votes as a state senator and the failure as chairman to hold subcommittee chairman as a Congressional senator. The problem with this angle is that there are many positive achievements as state senator well as positive comments from his colleagues and constituents there that he can point to, whereas a general argument based on the mode of voting is rather esoteric and lacks visceral appeal. Running for President is not the best of excuses for not summoning a subcommittee that could have a major impact on national security; but so far, the issue does not appear to be getting much traction. Unless the Clinton campaign can bring something more to the table here, this is at best a holding action.

This leaves the “venality” or, hopefully for the Clinton campaign, “corruption” angle. Specifically, Tony Rezko. Mr. Rezko was a wealthy political donor who allegedly helped the Obamas purchase an expensive house at well below its asking price. This did not become a major issue after Mr. Obama swiftly acknowledged his mistake when the matter surfaced at the very beginning of his presidential campaign. Mr. Rezko was indicted for extortion and wire fraud and is now coming to trial, which will surely attract renewed attention, an unwelcome development for Mr. Obama. Still, if there are no new revelations, the Obama campaign should be able to weather the fallout by dismissing it as old news, echoing Mrs. Clinton’s claim of having been “vetted”. That is not a shouting match that the Clintons want to get into.

But what if there’s more? The Obama-Rezko relationship was clearly more than that of just a donor and a politician. If other shady transactions involving the Obamas emerge over the course of the trial, they would be very embarrassing. Very damaging too, since that would take away his greatest sales point, i.e. that he is not like “those people”, and his ability to do no wrong will be severely compromised. He will be doubly damned, too, for hiding them until now. At that point, all his other actions for personal advancement, political compromise, such as the latest flap over purported secret assurances to Canadian authorities that Mr. Obama’s alarming rhetoric over NAFTA should not be taken seriously, will be seen in a very different light. He will no longer be able to walk on water, as his feet turn to clay. The harder they come, the harder they fall, as they say.

The Obama campaign must have done extensive counter-opposition research on the Obama-Rezko connection, so I think that it’s unlikely that anything sufficiently damaging will turn up to derail Mr. Obama’s campaign. But you never know. In any case, the only way the Clinton campaign can come within hearing distance of the Alter scenario is to wait for damaging revelations in the Rezko trial (or some other juicy scandal) and play them for what they’re worth. And if that happens, it is likely that superdelegates will begin moving to the Clinton camp, double-time.

That will be the hope that keeps Mrs. Clinton in the game, if she decides to do so, even after a possible defeat in Texas.

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