Presidential-primary races tend to proceed along self-reflexive lines. The candidate who is ahead—or who is perceived to be—receives more press coverage. He collects more contributions and endorsements, and these generate still more media attention, which brings in more money, more votes, and so on. Meanwhile, his opponents find that they cannot pay their staffs, or afford to hire a bus, or attract more than a clutch of peevish reporters to their news conferences. Hoping to make it onto the short list for Vice-President, the laggards throw their support to the front-runner, and the contest comes to an abrupt, if not necessarily satisfying, close.
Hillary Clinton is perhaps the first candidate in primary history to run this process in reverse. The longer the race has gone on, the lower the odds have become that she will finish the season leading either in the popular vote or in elected delegates. (After her victory in Pennsylvania last month, Slate calculated that she would still need eighty per cent “of every remaining vote” to catch up with Barack Obama in pledged delegates, and this week’s contests in Indiana and North Carolina seem unlikely to alter that math substantially.) Clinton’s once commanding lead among superdelegates has shrunk by three-quarters. At various points, her campaign has been on the verge of going broke. Nevertheless, rather than growing weaker, she seems to have become more formidable. How is this possible? And, perhaps more to the point, how can it possibly end?
Last week, the political news was dominated by yet another Obama-related embarrassment. The Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.’s performance at the National Press Club, with its praise for Louis Farrakhan—“one of the most important voices in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries”—and its insistence that the United States government is capable of spreading AIDS as a form of genocide, was either foolhardy or treacherous. “Jeremiah Wright has managed to do the impossible this political season,” the Web site RealClearPolitics observed, “unite pundits from the left and the right in agreement about how badly he’s hurting Barack Obama’s quest for the White House.” The incident raised, or, if you prefer, re-raised, questions about Obama’s judgment. It refocussed the campaign on race. And it fed concerns that the Senator lacks the instincts to win a 24/7, spare-no-attack election.
“Obama seems more and more like someone buffeted by events, rather than in charge of them” is how the Times’ Bob Herbert put it. The Senator’s response to Wright’s statements—they “offend me,” he told reporters the following day. “They rightly offend all Americans, and they should be denounced. And that’s what I am doing very clearly and unequivocally”—was so overdetermined that it was hard to say whether it represented actually taking charge or was another example of being buffeted.
In the course of the campaign, Clinton has tried out at least a dozen lines of attack against Obama, from ridiculing his message of hope—“The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing”—to questioning his preparedness. “One of us is ready to be Commander-in-Chief,” she told a crowd in New York. “Let’s get real.” The attacks in themselves have not been especially effective and, as is so often the case, they have had a damaging effect on their instigator; according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, the proportion of Americans who view Clinton negatively has risen to a record high of fifty-four per cent. Still, Clinton has gradually succeeded in altering the terms of the contest. Her message, no less compelling for being self-fulfilling, is that politics is a rough and nasty business. At several points, she has come close to taunting Obama for not being man enough to match her viciousness. “We need a President who can take whatever comes your way,” she told a Philadelphia TV station a couple of weeks ago. “I’m with Harry Truman on this,” she declared at a rally later that day. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Just speaking for myself, I am very comfortable in the kitchen.” True to form, Clinton seized on the opportunity offered by Wright, appearing on Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor” to announce that she found the pastor’s remarks “offensive and outrageous.”
There are, of course, measures of political grit besides the ability to dole out and withstand abuse. Last week, even as the Wright episode was being ceaselessly rehashed, Clinton followed John McCain in proposing a suspension of the federal gasoline tax for the summer. The proposal was aptly described by Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter as “the most irresponsible policy idea of the year.” As Clinton and McCain surely know, a gas-tax holiday would do nothing to address America’s genuine energy problems. It also would not alleviate the country’s economic problems. What it would do is encourage oil consumption—just about the last thing we need. Obama rejected the idea. Clinton immediately began running ads denouncing him for doing so.
Whatever the outcome of this week’s primaries, the pressure to resolve the Democratic contest can only increase. How Clinton will respond is unclear: her campaign seems to have entered a new, almost mystical phase, in which the number of votes received or delegates pledged no longer matters. “We don’t think this is just going to be about some numerical metric,” Geoff Garin, one of her chief strategists, recently told the Washington Post. After her back-from-the-dead victory in Ohio, Clinton committed herself to soldiering on not despite but because of the fact that the situation seemed hopeless. For everyone “across America who’s ever been counted out but refused to be knocked out, and for everyone who has stumbled but stood right back up, and for everyone who works hard and never gives up,” she said, “this one is for you.” That message understandably resonates with voters who, when they are not bitterly clinging to their guns and their religion, are having trouble meeting their mortgage payments. As long as Clinton is willing to fight on simply for the sake of fighting, there really is no reason that this endless campaign has to end.