LOS ANGELES – Tough.
That’s the word of the hour.
Hillary Clinton wants everyone to know that she won’t be swift-boated by anyone. She may or may not win the Democratic nomination, but it won’t be for want of toughness. And toughness is what it will take to beat John McCain in November.
How do you win in a system in which, unlike the Republican contests, the loser takes almost as many delegates as the winner, and reaching the magic majority requires the sort of statistical run that neither Clinton nor Barack Obama has managed to pull off consistently?
The short answer is superdelegates. With 792 party leaders and elected officials going to the Democratic National Convention as superdelegates, the fight will be on for that pool of 20 percent of the delegates. And make no mistake, the Clintons, with 35 years of political chits and connections to call in, will be calling in every one.
Tough doesn’t begin to describe it. Have you ever tried to say "no" to Bill Clinton one-on-one? I mean about politics, silly.
The superdelegates include members of Congress, governors and the largest group, members of the Democratic National Committee. Ask most people about the DNC and they think you’re talking about a gynecological procedure. I defy most people to name a single DNC member, even from their own state.
But as a former member of that body myself, and a proud political hack, I will tell you that DNC members are players, and the Clintons will play them as hard and as tough as they can.
Can Obama stand up to the Clinton operation? It’s a proper and necessary test. However tough the Democratic race, it’s nothing compared to what the victor will face in the fall. The Clinton brand of hardball is no tougher than what the Republicans have played in every election in the last two decades, and what they will play against either Clinton or Obama.
The good news for Democratic voters is that the next two months — and my guess is that it will take that — will be a time to judge the candidates not only in terms of how they measure up against each other, but more importantly, how they will measure up against McCain, without question the Republican who will be the toughest for Democrats to beat.
The question many Democrats will be debating, especially the superdelegates who are hacks like me, or even better or worse (depending on your perspective), have to run on the same ballot as the party’s nominee, is who will be stronger against McCain.
How does Obama’s inexperience compare to the realities of anti-Clintonism? How does subtle racism compare to sometimes not-so-subtle sexism? Who is the bigger risk? One way, maybe the best way, to judge this is by watching the two candidates in debates, and imagining McCain at the other podium.
Will Obama look like a kid or a breath of fresh air? Will Hillary hold her own?
The good news is that Hillary already has accepted a number of debates, and Obama is likely to feel enormous pressure to do the same. If he doesn’t, it’s a bad sign. Presidential debates are extraordinarily important to the general election. They are the reason Kerry almost won, and Dukakis surely lost.
Obama needs as much practice as he can get if he’s to take on McCain, and we need the chance to judge him in that context. By the looks of things, we’ll have it. I’m hoping they’ll be tough, much as I enjoy the lovefests. Because in the end, tough is what it will take to win this nomination, to beat McCain and, most importantly, to take on the forces of evil in the world that America surely faces.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.