The Long Defeat
By DAVID BROOKS
Published: March 25, 2008
Hillary Clinton may not realize it yet, but shes just
endured one of the worst weeks of her campaign.
First, Barack Obama weathered the Rev. Jeremiah Wright
affair without serious damage to his nomination
prospects. Obama still holds a tiny lead among
Democrats nationally in the Gallup tracking poll, just
as he did before this whole affair blew up.
Second, Obamas lawyers successfully prevented
re-votes in Florida and Michigan. That means it would
be virtually impossible for Clinton to take a lead in
either elected delegates or total primary votes.
Third, as Noam Scheiber of The New Republic has
reported, most superdelegates have accepted Nancy
Pelosis judgment that the winner of the elected
delegates should get the nomination. Instead of lining
up behind Clinton, theyre drifting away. Her lead
among them has shrunk by about 60 in the past month,
according to Avi Zenilman of Politico.com.
In short, Hillary Clintons presidential prospects
continue to dim. The door is closing. Night is coming.
The end, however, is not near.
Last week, an important Clinton adviser told Jim
VandeHei and Mike Allen (also of Politico) that
Clinton had no more than a 10 percent chance of
getting the nomination. Now, shes probably down to a
5 percent chance.
Lets take a look at what shes going to put her party
through for the sake of that 5 percent chance: The
Democratic Party is probably going to have to endure
another three months of daily sniping. For another
three months, well have the Carvilles likening the
Obamaites to Judas and former generals accusing
Clintonites of McCarthyism. For three months, well
have the daily round of résumé padding and sulfurous
conference calls. Well have campaign aides blurting
blue dress and only-because-hes-black references as
they let slip their private contempt.
For three more months (maybe more!) the campaign will
proceed along in its Verdun-like pattern. There will
be a steady rifle fire of character assassination from
the underlings, interrupted by the occasional
firestorm of artillery when the contest touches upon
race, gender or patriotism. The policy debates between
the two have been long exhausted, so the only way to
get the public really engaged is by poking some raw
For the sake of that 5 percent, this will be the
sourest spring. About a fifth of Clinton and Obama
supporters now say they wouldnt vote for the other
candidate in the general election. Meanwhile, on the
other side, voters get an unobstructed view of the
Republican nominee. John McCains approval ratings
have soared 11 points. He is now viewed positively by
67 percent of Americans. A month ago, McCain was
losing to Obama among independents by double digits in
a general election matchup. Now McCain has a lead
among this group.
For three more months, Clinton is likely to hurt Obama
even more against McCain, without hurting him against
herself. And all this is happening so she can preserve
that 5 percent chance.
When you step back and think about it, she is amazing.
She possesses the audacity of hopelessness.
Why does she go on like this? Does Clinton privately
believe that Obama is so incompetent that only she can
deliver the policies they both support? Is she simply
selfish, and willing to put her party through agony
for the sake of her slender chance? Are leading
Democrats so narcissistic that they would create
bitter stagnation even if they were granted one-party
The better answer is that Clintons long rear-guard
action is the logical extension of her relentlessly
For nearly 20 years, she has been encased in the
apparatus of political celebrity. Look at her schedule
as first lady and ever since. Think of the thousands
of staged events, the tens of thousands of times she
has pretended to be delighted to see someone she
doesnt know, the hundreds of thousands times she has
recited empty clichés and exhortatory banalities, the
millions of photos she has posed for in which she is
supposed to appear empathetic or tough, the billions
of politically opportune half-truths that have bounced
around her head.
No wonder the Clinton campaign feels impersonal. Its
like a machine for the production of politics. It
plows ahead from event to event following its own iron
logic. The only question is whether Clinton herself
can step outside the apparatus long enough to turn it
off and withdraw voluntarily or whether she will force
the rest of her party to intervene and jam the gears.
If she does the former, she would surprise everybody
with a display of self-sacrifice. Her campaign would
cruise along at a lower register until North Carolina,
then use that as an occasion to withdraw. If she does
not, she would soldier on doggedly, taking down as
many allies as necessary.