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Clinton has made the right call… so far

Clinton 2008
Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., at a campaign rally in Fayetteville, N.C., Thursday, March 27, 2008. Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: NBC News

It is amazing how loud some of the buzz is for Sen. Hillary Clinton to "do what's best for the party" and get out.

More than any other week, this one seemed to have the most actual calls for a Clinton withdrawal.

It started last Friday with Bill Richardson. It has continued throughout the past seven days with calls from both Sen. Barack Obama supporters (Chris Dodd and Pat Leahy) to supposed uncommitted Dem bigwigs (Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi).

I use the term "supposed" because I think one can start reading between the lines of statements from the so-called undecided superdelegates. If someone says, "the process isn't hurting the party, let everyone have a say" you know that is code for "I'm still holding out hope for Clinton."

But if a supposed uncommitted superdelegate says, "we need to start thinking about what this is doing to our long term chances of defeating John McCain" that is code for, "I am leaning toward Obama but I hope Clinton will simply drop out so I can always claim to her and Bill that I was never against them."

Still, Clinton should feel vindicated for staying in the race in part because of the Rev. Wright blow up. As of now, it appears Obama has weathered the storm. He deftly shifted the debate from values to a discussion about race and society. For many Dems it was a leadership moment, which may not have occurred without Clinton in the race.

Now, Obama was dented a bit, and he certainly lost the very soft support he was getting from Republicans, according to our most recent NBC/WSJ poll. Nevertheless, he held steady with independents.

As one person commented to me, the Wright controversy forced Obama to use his "get out of jail free" card, meaning he had a reservoir of support he could tap into in order to get a large chunk of voters to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Ultimately, the Wright issue will never be fully behind him. He will have to address the issue again at some point because race is like catnip to the media, as well as to the public at large. As a society, we can't help but examine the issue any chance we get. For the press it is like a car crash story: We hate to report it, but we always do.

Moreover, I would argue the Wright story turned off enough older white voters so that Obama can no longer argue that when compared with Clinton he will expand the electoral map in a general election with McCain.

Now he can simply say he will use a different map; a map that ultimately might expand for the party as a whole, even if his path to 270 is no less narrow a victory than Clinton's. It is just different.

Obama will rely on greater strength west of the Mississippi, while Clinton will use the same Gore-Kerry map. She will simply promise that she will carry Ohio or Florida.

The party ought to lay off the calls for Clinton to drop out, at least for now, because her presence at worst is making Obama a better candidate. The Wright flare-up was the first true political crisis of Obama's national political career, which is remarkable given how close he is to being the Democratic nominee. Who knows when the Wright controversy would have circulated had the nomination been locked up.

Obama needed to prove he could handle a real media firestorm, something Clinton has done numerous times throughout her career. In fact, her political survival skills have been marketed as an asset by the campaign, something I think would have sold better in '04 when the party was looking for a tough survivor to put up against Bush.

The constant reminder to Democrats about Clinton's ability to handle firestorms has played into Obama's "turn the page" message. There is a large chunk of Obama supporters who are with him because they are exhausted from the political firefights of the last 20 years.

Of course, the Clinton campaign would argue that these folks are being naïve if they think partisan bickering goes if Obama is elected. However, as many have noted, an electorate in a change election wants to feel optimistic and Obama is providing that optimism right now.

Still, Clinton should feel no hurry to get out. In fact, she is also making Obama a better candidate by forcing him to up his rhetoric on the economy and start working harder to woo these working class, white voters who appear to be eluding him in the Rust Belt states.

Interestingly, if the roles were reversed, and it was Obama trailing on the delegate front but in a position to win a long-shot chance at the nomination, the full-court press from the Clinton campaign would be much louder and much more aggressive.

The Obama campaign via surrogates has been quietly trying to put pressure on Clinton to get out. But they haven’t flexed the muscle I’m guessing the Clintons would have if their roles were reversed.

Obama’s camp has been hesitant to flex too hard in part because they fear if they try and fail, they may alienate too many of her supporters.

Still, imagine what the endorsement of 20+ superdelegates this week would have done for Obama’s aura of inevitability. Why didn’t Obama do this? Do they want to wait until after Pennsylvania so that if they keep it close, they use that as the pivot point? Or do they not have as many superdelegates in their back pocket as they’ve led some of us to believe?

Then there is the other shoe that could drop.

Clinton knows something else could pop up – another controversial issue.

There will be a point where she could do damage to the party but we’re not there yet.

Possibly, the point is May 6, the North Carolina and Indiana primaries.

If Obama should win one of the two that day (North Carolina being the most likely), or if that’s Clinton’s D-Day and she fails to come through with a victory in either state – and she decides to drop out – she’ll still be leaving Obama plenty of time to focus on McCain.

As this campaign has proven, six months is more than enough time.

After all, Iowa was less than three months ago.

So Clinton will have a tough decision to make soon, but now is not the time.

Who knows, she may even win Pennsylvania big, and sweep the May 6 states, turning the conventional wisdom upside down.

Is it somewhat selfish and self-centered for Clinton to put her ambitions above the party? Of course. But believing you can lead the free world is the most selfish, self-centered thing to begin with.

Anyone who runs for president must have these traits.

It is the gene presidential candidates have that the rest of us don’t.