The Democratic race has brought many firsts. As the campaign moves into the languid days of summer (hello Memorial Day!), another first must be noted.
For the first time in my memory and possibly for the first time in American history, it appears the likely loser in a hard-fought political contest is trying to dictate the terms of surrender.
How else to interpret the “unity” moves on behalf of Hillary Clinton and those who supposedly speak on her behalf?
Let us summarize.
In the week that just was, Clinton implied Barack Obama was trying to recreate the 2000 recount in Florida or, alternatively, turn the Sunshine State into Zimbabwe.
Because Obama is still awaiting a ruling from the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee on how many delegates it will seat from Florida and Michigan. Clinton made these assertions – privately derided as “absurd”, “disturbing” and “inflammatory” by senior Obama officials -- the same day Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, told National Public Radio camp Obama would be willing to meet Clinton more than half way if that would alleviate future discord.
Clinton’s position is that the delegates should be seated according to her demands, even though both states knowingly violated the DNC rules and knew they would be punished. Interestingly, Clinton’s camp says this punishment has already occurred. How? The states were deprived, in Communications Director Howard Wolfson’s own words, of “full-fledged primaries.” In what ways were they lacking, er, full-fledged status? Why, candidates didn’t campaign there and voters didn’t have a full airing of the issues, said Clinton’s chief delegate counter, Harold Ickes.
Both Wolfson and Ickes are consummate professionals and adept at pressing their candidate's case with gusto. But in this formulation they systematically debunked Clinton’s entire case for seating all delegates on her terms and with no penalty. If the primaries in Michigan and Florida were not as real as the others, why and under what set of just rules should the DNC seat their full slate of delegates as if nothing untoward had happened? Why should two states that had manifestly inferior primaries be given full delegate privileges on par with states that followed the rules and conducted robust primaries? Why indeed.
Clinton’s team even went so far as to assert that the Michigan delegates currently flying under the banner of “uncommitted” don’t necessarily belong in Obama’s column. Huh? Uncommitted was the only non-Clinton alternative on the Michigan primary ballot. That's because every candidate save Clinton took his name off the ballot to conform to the Iowa-New Hampshire-Nevada-South Carolina sequence sanctioned by the DNC. By what sense of propriety can Ickes and Wolfson assert that Clinton has claim on the only reservoir of Michigan delegates who verily screamed NOT CLINTON with their votes?
How this falls into a category of “party unity” I cannot say.
Neither, of course, can team Clinton because in this battle they seek not unity but advantage, as is their right. But once this matter is settled and Florida and Michigan are seated, the Clinton campaign will have, it appears, needlessly antagonized Obama, various party leaders, and Michigan and Florida Democrats who at this stage want to resolve this dispute with minimal discord. The next move will undoubtedly be Clinton’s as many Democrats fear she will follow-through on threats to stage street protests outside the DNC’s May 31 Rules and Bylaws Committee proceedings. What will team Clinton do in the name of “unity” next weekend? What indeed.
Also on the unity front, Bill Clinton’s assertion – transmitted by unnamed friends -- that Hillary “has earned” the right to be offered by Vice Presidential slot on an Obama ticket. Earned the right to be asked? Ah, yes. Earned a right to have her decide the fate of Obama’s ticket. Notice, the 42nd President did not let it be known Clinton had earned the right to be offered a slot that she would gladly accept to improve Obama’s chances of becoming president. No. Only that she be given the chance to reject it, rendering Obama simultaneously weakened for offering and spurned by a possible Hillary rejection.
Then came word from Clinton’s finance chief Hassan Nemazee of nasty consequences should Obama not give Hilary right of "dream ticket" first refusal. Nemazee told Politico.com “…there’s a risk that if she isn’t invited on the ticket, Hillary’s political and financial supporters may not feel compelled to be as integrated and involved in the Obama campaign in order to provide maximum support that he’ll need to prevail in November.”
This might seem a bit gauche, but isn’t the first obligation of Clinton’s financial supporters – stalwart loyalists all – to help Hillary pay off her $31 million debt? And again the dangling verb “invite.” It sounds like: "If you don’t ask, we aren’t given the power to say no." Can this be interpreted any other way?
Honestly, who negotiates in public for an offer they’re sure to accept in such a brass-knuckled way? A unifier? I'm not so sure. As to the “maximum support” Clinton’s political supporters might withhold, it’s worth pointing out that no fewer than 13 former Clinton super delegates have already switched to Obama (two of them former DNC chairs appointed by Bill Clinton). What's more, the flow of super delegates heretofore “frozen” by the Clinton camp has been moving steadily in Obama’s direction -- even after her landslide victories in West Virginia and Kentucky.
One last point on the financial end of things. Without a single PAC, Obama has raised more than $272 million and has $37 million in the bank. Add up his cash-on-hand and Clinton’s debt and you get $68 million. Just as a point of comparison, that sum is 80 percent of the $84 million Obama would receive if he accepts public financing for the general election.
It seems to me the Obama campaign, having come this far on its own approach to fund-raising, isn't quaking in its boots at the idea of AWOL Clinton donors. They may well wonder if these donors will dare risk sitting out this race as an act of petulant obeisance to the defunct Clinton machine.
I’ve left Clinton’s grotesquely unfortunate comments about Robert Kennedy’s assassination to the end because, obviously, Clinton did not mean to suggest she’s staying in the race because Obama might be shot. That it SOUNDED that way is her fault and her fault alone. That it spooked and shocked and saddened many is her doing. Not the media’s. Not Obama’s. Hers.
There were a million ways for Clinton to fence off any talk of RFK’s assassination to make it clear to one and all that it had zero relevance to the length of this race. She did not do this. Instead, she rolled into a convoluted expiation on lengthy primary contests that don’t always undermine party unity (unless, one might reasonably observe, the candidate does all described above).
She also cited the historically inaccurate and long-discredited nostrum that her husband didn’t win the nomination until mid-June of 1992. Technically, this is true. But everyone who covered that race, as I did, knows that Clinton clinched the deal on April 7 when he beat an upstart Jerry Brown in the New York and Wisconsin primaries.
Brown was a non-entity in the early contests but rose when other challengers like Bob Kerrey, Tom Harkin, and Paul Tsongas fell by the wayside. Brown then captured the remaining anti-Clinton vote and rose to official irritant status but no one at the time considered him a serious long-term challenger to Clinton. After the April 7 primaries, the party fell in line behind Clinton, Brown never one another contest and the June California primary was anti-climatic.
There was no reason for Clinton to invoke the 1992 campaigns or 1968 campaigns. None. That she did and that she then rushed to a South Dakota grocery store, posing in front of bottles of condiments made the scene all the more forced, macabre and pitiful.
One would think in answer to the question, “Why are you still in this race?”, Clinton could have said: “Because 17 million people have voted for me and I owe it to them to give it my best until the end; hundreds of thousands have contributed to me in small amounts, especially lately, and I owe it to them to use their hard-earned money to make my case to as many voters as I can; I am running a race on behalf of all Democrats but also making a case as the first woman who has come this far and I owe it to history to give nothing less than my all; I’ve said it’s a core principle to seat delegations from Michigan and Florida and I will not waver until this matter is resolved.”
She could have said that. But she didn’t. The answer she didn't give would have inspired unity.
But it doesn’t feel like that’s what this week was all about.