I was right on the button about Tuesday’s results when I swore that I had absolutely no clue what was going to happen. But now that it has happened, and Hillary Clinton has had a really big night, we can certainly try to make sense of where things go from here.
The main story is no secret. Clinton came off the mat to push back, hard, against Obama, and is back in the race. She’s still the underdog but unquestionably this is a significant momentum shift. If there is a revote in disputed Michigan and Florida, she could pick up a lot of ground. Michigan’s auto workers and Florida’s Jews and Latinos are right now Clinton constituencies.
So much for the obvious…
I like to keep my eyes open for the side story we might miss. One is the role played by the Canadian Conservative party leadership in tripping up Obama in Ohio. A memo suddenly appears (we later find that it was leaked from a top staffer in the PM’s office) that says that Obama’s people dismissed his opposition to NAFTA as pure rhetoric not to be taken seriously. Now nobody asks whether a second hand statement about comments allegedly made by an unofficial Obama aide mean anything. And as the days have gone by, the memo has seemed to be less and less solid. Nobody asked the obvious question: who benefits from the timely leak? My guess is that Canada’s conservatives wanted to derail Obama’s momentum, and if that meant helping Clinton to keep the two-person race going, that’s a two-fer. The memo story hurt Obama badly in anti-NAFTA Ohio, with its strong blue collar base.
Looking back, Obama should have done what John McCain did when the New York Times story on his ties to lobbyists hit: attack the messenger. Who in Canada’s politics wants to derail my campaign, and why? instead, the media treated the charge as solid, and ignored the origin of the memo. Of course, Obama had to wait to see if the story was true, and that was time lost. (Meanwhile, there is a hot debate in Canada over the politics of the memo.n As usual, we are always the last ones to find out what’s going on in our own politics.)
The second thing that stuck out for me in the midst of all this is the odd visit John McCain made to the White House to pick up George Bush’s endorsement. McCain showed up late, and Bush had to hop around (literally) and make conversation until McCain appeared. Then, when a reporter asked how McCain would change Bush’s policies, Bush jumped in and said McCain wouldn’t change a thing.
Did anybody realize that Bush and McCain were writing the Democratic nominee’s campaign commercial for the fall, tying McCain to Bush? Did they think nobody would notice the event, with the excitement over the Democratic voting? Who in the Bush and McCain camps planned this particular fiasco? While Democrats are terrified that the continuing nomination battle will hurt them in the fall, they could draw some satisfaction from this White House visit.
Obama has some work to do over the next few weeks to regain his lost momentum. Being tag-teamed by Clinton and McCain (with Clinton even saying that McCain is ready to be president, but Obama is not) he is going to have to up his game a bit. If he does, he should be able to hang on to win the nomination. Superdelegates who were ready to jump to Obama are now watching warily, and wondering if they were moving too soon. In part, that’s Obama’s audience right now.
Clinton is doing something pretty smart, which is talking up a ticket with Obama. If conflicted Democrats come to believe that they will be two for the price of one, they may find a vote for Clinton to be safe now that Clinton has made Obama seem a little more risky. That’s why Obama has to get moving before that possibility settles in.
I don’t think this extended race is fatal for Democrats. Democrats, born pessimists, are certain that bad things lie around each turn in the campaign. In fact, every state that is voting in these primaries and caucuses wants to be heard, and the turnouts are gigantic. Texas alone was historic in the size of the Democratic vote. My guess is that the worst bitterness will be among the staffs and families of the candidates, and that can be an ugly thing. But it probably won’t reach into the grass roots, where there is still lots of enthusiasm for both. And it’s only March!
This front-loaded nomination process had happened so quickly and so dramatically that it seems as if the conventions are around the corner.
They are still a long way away.