Clinton's exit strategy

Clinton 2008
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., waves as she makes her way from her campaign plane in Sioux Falls, S.D. on Monday.Elise Amendola / AP
/ Source: National Journal

As her odds of getting the Democratic presidential nomination got longer and longer over the past few months, there have been increasing calls for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., to drop her bid for the sake of the party.

Those pleas were wrong and unfair. When was the last time a presidential candidate who was still consistently winning primaries and getting healthy numbers of votes asked to step aside, particularly with more states to go?

In the same respect, if nobody would expect a football or basketball team that was trailing with a few minutes left in the game to leave the court before the buzzer, why should a candidate still winning drop out of the contest?

Besides, this intense primary process has been a tremendously effective voter registration and organizational effort for Democrats. Finally, the Democratic Party and its various constituencies owed the candidates a little latitude for their service over the years.

But after tonight, all that changes. After the final primaries in Montana and South Dakota, and with the issues involving Florida and Michigan resolved by the Democratic National Committee, the Clinton "stand and fight" arguments take on a shrillness and a futility that would put the Clintons' standing in the party in very grave danger.

On at least one level, Clinton has really helped herself this year. She has shown a fight, a perseverance and a tenacity that has proven that she has heart. Nobody can deny that she's the real deal.

People can argue whether former President Clinton intended to or in fact did make racially charged arguments around the time of the South Carolina primary.

Some fervently believe he did and vow never to forgive him or his wife for his having done it. Others say that the statements he made were not racist; that it just shows how anything said on any aspect of the race issue is explosive, and that this was the case of an angry husband who felt his wife was not being treated fairly lashing out and choosing his words poorly.

Regardless of which side one comes down on in that debate, it's probably a decent bet that Bill Clinton will never be viewed by the black community in the same way again. He can try to diminish the ill will, but it will never go away.

At this point, the Clintons should begin thinking about their future and standing in the party. What they do over the next five months will determine what their standing will be. Will they be seen as party unifiers and team players, or party wreckers and sore losers?

Recent history shows terrific examples of how to handle and how not to handle tough losses.

In the 1994 Maryland governor's race, Democrat Parris Glendening, the county executive for Prince George's County, edged Ellen Sauerbrey, the state House of Delegates Republican leader, by a scant 5,993 votes out of more than 1.4 million cast.

Some Republicans said they smelled foul play, although a subsequent bipartisan investigation found none. Sauerbrey fought and fought, long after it was clear that she would not prevail, earning her the moniker, "Ellen Sourgrapes."

In the 1998 rematch, though Glendening's popularity was on the wane, Sauerbrey's mishandling of the recount likely prevented her from taking advantage of the situation and she lost, 55-45 percent.

In 2006, Republican automobile dealer Vern Buchanan edged out Christine Jennings, a banker and the Democratic nominee in Florida's 13th District, by 369 votes, though the results were clouded by evidence of voting-machine irregularities.

In my Tuesday, June 3rd "Off to the Races" column, I mistakenly referred to "evidence of voting-machine irregularities" in the 2006 race between Vern Buchanan and Christine Jennings in Florida's 16th CD. In fact, a GAO report issued in 2007 concluded that no such evidence could be found. Although my point that Jennings handled the situation badly still stands, I should have instead referred to "allegations of voting-machine irregularities."

But once again, the candidate on the short end of the stick handled it badly.

This, too, might put Jennings at a disadvantage in her rematch effort this fall against Buchanan. A strong Democratic tide might push her over the top, but that's what it would take, as she came across as a sore loser.

The model for how to lose gracefully is South Dakota Sen. John Thune. Then a House member, Thune lost his 2002 challenge to incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson by just 524 votes, with suggestions of voting irregularities on Indian reservations clouding the outcome.

But Thune stepped back, handled the outcome with grace and was able to leverage that into being well positioned to take on Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., just two years later and unseat him.

If I were Hillary Clinton, I would bow out over the next few days, take a well-earned vacation and catch up on sleep.

After that, she needs to spend the rest of the summer and fall campaigning for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and paying off her multimillion-dollar campaign debt.

No one would be able to say that Hillary and Bill Clinton didn't do all they could to help Obama win the general election. And in all honesty, she could also be praying every night that he loses, so she could give folks the "I told you so" look and have another shot in 2012.

In the long haul, if the Clintons handle this right, she can strengthen her position in the party and he can begin the rehabilitation of his own place in the party. Handled badly, neither will ever be able to fully recover.