The morning after: Clinton's bargain, as Obama and McCain launch the general election

Last night, the two Democratic candidates lived in alternate dimensions. On the one hand, Barack Obama proclaimed himself the Democratic nominee after the networks showed him surpassing the magic threshold of 2,118 and delivered a celebratory speech in front of thousands of supporters as the media commemorated the first black nominee of a major US party. On the other, Hillary Clinton issued a defiant and combative message to her rival, avoiding any sort of concession and offering only some weakly-worded praise; she recapped her own claim to the nomination -- the popular vote and electability -- and said it was too early for her to decide anything.

Yesterday was meant to be Obama's night. Given how much of a favorite he had become since mid-February, it is easy to forget how giant an upset his victory his and how inevitable Clinton's nomination looked just 7 months ago or at least until the Philadelphia debate held at the end of October.

Last nigt, after months of false rumors about stacks of superdelegates just waiting to endorse, the Illinois Senator stunningly delivered on the promise of a superdelegate tsunami. About 40 delegates behind yesterday morning, he now stands at 2,156 by CNN's count, 38 more than the majority. Of these roughly 80 delegates Obama accumulated over the past day, only 15 came from Montana and South Dakota. Obama moved to put the nomination out of Clinton's reach, and even a more favorable allocation of Michigan's delegate would not solve Hillary's problem now, unless she insists on a full seating which her post-RBC reaction appeared to rule out.

Clinton first crashed the party by pulling an unexpected victory in South Dakota, the first legitimate upset since February. And in an ironic sense of event, it is the state in which she finally accomplished what she had been trying to do ever since March 4th (create a true surprise) that allowed Obama to win the delegates necessary to clinch the nomination. This latest development is telling of how much of a lead Obama had build by the end of February since three months of sustained Clinton victories -- some of them huge -- still leave her about 100 pledged delegates behind her rivals. This is, Obama supporters will say, a reminder of how futile Clinton's quest has been and how much time Democrats have wasted.

The sheer magnitude of the superdelegate tsunami led most observers to believe Clinton would pull out of the race in her speech, or at least concede that her odds are long. But she did no such thing and prevented the Democratic Party from launching its re-unification process heading into Obama's speech on a night in which TV networks were carrying speeches live in front of a large audience. Clinton's tone was more combative than expected, signaling that reports that she was on the verge of conceding were probably overstated -- one does not decide to be use this defiant a speech at the last minute. Clinton probably underestimates her party's expectation that she would offer some gesture last night and, whatever she does in the coming days, yesterday's speech might come back to haunt her if other Democratic figures are resentful of her last minute slap in the face.

Given the high odds Clinton faces, it is clear that she is looking to bargain something in exchange for her concession and for her support of Obama. But what is she asking for and, as importantly, what is Obama ready to give her? The vice-presidential nomination? It is too early to talk of that, and the Obama campaign does not want to tie its hands in the back -- though there are some scenarios in which they might eventually realize they need to tap their former rival. Simply to save face? Given how wounded reports indicate the Clintons are, this is a possible factor as well. Another possibility -- and one Obama might be more willing to grant -- is to give Clinton an important role in crafting and passing health care policy. Clinton emphasized that issue repeatedly last night, perhaps to pressure Obama to take up elements of his plan and perhaps to win an actual position. It is difficult to see how Clinton could seriously be envisioning any other route than dropping out over the next few days, however, as the political damage to her legacy and role in the Senate would be too great at this point were she at all serious about contesting Obama's nomination all the way to Denver.

While Hillary Clinton remained at the center of the political stage, John McCain and Barack Obama had moved on to their own contest. Both their speeches were combative and should be considered as the official launch of the general election. But the comparison was not favorable to McCain in ways that are puzzling: Why did his campaign not plan for this important night better? This was the first prime time speech McCain would deliver since March 4th and most probably the last until his acceptance speech in September; it was also his re-introduction to voters. Why, then, was McCain's speech so overwhelmingly negative and why was it almost exclusively focused on Obama? The Democrat's address, by contrast, had large portions designed to attack McCain but it also contained the usual more uplifting passages that celebrated his clinching the nomination and marked the path forward.

And why was the event organized in such a small venue in front of a relatively small crowd? Not to mention the problems with McCain's delivery, as he strangely snickered when repeating his campaign's new motto, "That's not change we can believe in." Compare McCain's enthusiasm and fire not just to Obama's speech but also to Clinton's. The New York Senator's addresses on election night paled in comparison to Obama's for much of the past few months, as is expected, but that was due to his speech-making strength -- not to her weakness. McCain will never win based on his oratory, and he knows that. But yesterday's speech had a number of strategic and purely organizational mistakes that is surprising from a campaign that had so much time to prepare.

Given this strange situation, it is easy to forget that McCain unveiled some important themes of his general election campaign that we will hear about in the coming weeks: He accused Obama of being in the pocket of special interests and of wanting to lead Iraq into chaos. And he pinpointed the area on which he will draw the sharpest contrasts with Obama: We are done with Clinton's experience, prepare to hear about judgment. McCain also presented himself as an independent voice, independent from both the Bush Administration and the Republican Party and its special interests. That message has two drawbacks, of course -- it puts the Arizona Senator on a defensive position and risks alienating conservative voters. But the combative and openly disdainful tone McCain used last night does point to one thing: He has been waiting for a long time for the general election to start and we should be ready for things to get heated fast.

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  • Very disappointing speech from Clinton last night. I didn't expect her to fall on her sword, but I did expect a measure of grace, which was totally lacking. She basically taunted him, which leaves him in an uncomfortable position of either continuing to act the supplicant and appeaser, which makes him look weak, or to walk away, stoking the anger of her infuriated base. She made it clear that her claimed 18 MM voters were a bargaining chip, that they belonged to her and 'deserved respect', whatever that means.

    One possibility is that some party heavies - including Clinton supporters - will tell her to back it off - which may lead to further claims of bullying and victimization. The next few days will be interesting.

    You'll never go broke under-estimating the Clintons' ability to deliver a kick in the groin.

    By Anonymous zoot, At 04 June, 2008 09:02  

  • Clinton has more democratic support than Obama and that makes him indeed weak. Without her as an adversary, Obama will crumble and he knows this better than his supporters. A swift withdrawal would destroy Obama. She is now in the position still of making or breaking Obama's future. Like her methods or not, it's her job to to either push Obama into the WH or take his place if he fails.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 04 June, 2008 09:27  

  • Obama supporters are so disgraceful, it's very funny to hear them criticize someone for a lack thereof. Obama had a chance to show grace on Saturday and choose to show short-sighted greed. He could have joined in on calling for a full seating of both states as they voted and cut off Clinton's support. Instead, he got disgracefully greedy and fueled her fight further. He could cut this off now by correcting that mistake. He doesn't seem to learn very quickly.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 04 June, 2008 09:32  

  • The two Anons, I will keep calling you out. Again IN YOUR DREAMS!!! Clinton has neve had a sense of political timing, always relying on tactics rather that long term strategy. That's why she lost and that's why her current tactic will fail as usual.Just watch.
    On another note, when I read that Mccain would be giving a prime time speech yesterday of all days, I laughed to myself and wondered aloud what he was thinking: and I was rught. Like Clinton he will make a lot of tactical mistakes but in his case he won't be nimble enough to adapt because of his age and 'stuck in his ways' aattitude.
    Infact my prayer is that he keeps belittling Obama. Hhaaaahaaaa.......

    By Anonymous ACE, At 04 June, 2008 10:40  

  • To paraphrase an old proveb: "If the mountain will not come to Obama, Obama will go to the mountain."

    By Blogger Daniel Greenfield, At 04 June, 2008 11:56  

  • Hillary Clinton speaks for many of us. The historic outcome of this race has to do not so much with the externals of race and gender but the close delegate count. The Democrats designed a weak-kneed approach to apportioning delegates based on voting outcomes. That was a huge mistake. Caucus states of three hundred voters in a backroom in nowheresville Idaho is not a good indicator of future elctoral success. Yet, that's exactly what Democrats got: a presumptive nominee who won a couple hundred votes in a state the Democrats will never win in November. Clinton didn't jsut capture a Huckabee sized amount of delegates. She won substantially and in sates the Democrats need to win. When the dust settles, Obama will stare into the void of the coming months and realize he doesn't have what it takes to win the election. He won't say anything, of course, because that wouldn't jibe with his uplifting message of hope against odds. But I suspect that come November he will be no further than where he is now in voters' eyes. He would have to perform the Herculean task of convincing them he can govern the country. But based on what? Hope?! I fear the Democrats have really shot themsevels in the foot with the most inexperienced and unapologetically liberal candidate to come along in decades. Don't forget! Karl Rove is still out there scheming a plot to tear Obama down. That's why we hedged our bets with Kerry in 04. That didn't work, so now 180 degrees. God help us come November!

    By Anonymous Tom, At 04 June, 2008 12:09  

  • He could have joined in on calling for a full seating of both states as they voted and cut off Clinton's support. Instead, he got disgracefully greedy and fueled her fight further.

    I have yet to hear how seating MI and FL fully would not lead to even more chaos next time around. If there are no penalties for voting early, what's to prevent even more rampant line-jumping that will make a process that's already too early and too long even earlier and longer?

    It's simply not realistic for the DNC to allow states to vote early without penalty. It has nothing to do with what Obama wants, nothing to do with greed; it's a practical assessment of how to prevent this process from getting even worse. I just wish some supporter of withholding sanctions could explain how to enforce a schedule without them.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 04 June, 2008 12:11  

  • She won substantially and in sates the Democrats need to win.

    I'm very frustrated with the continuing promulgation of that argument. Primary results cannot be extrapolated to the general election: how A does against B does not tell us how either of them will do against C. To make that inference is simply specious.

    Obama is way up against McCain in many must-win states--NY, CA, NJ. He leads in PA and many other places. The fact that Clinton won some of them against Obama doesn't mean that Obama can't or won't win them against McCain; he obviously will win many of them.

    He would have to perform the Herculean task of convincing them he can govern the country. But based on what? Hope?!

    Head-to-head polls have him leading McCain in the electoral college, so the task ahead wouldn't appear to be Herculean.

    And it would be based on his and McCain's vastly different positions on Iraq and foreign policy, health care, and the economy, among other issues.

    I fear the Democrats have really shot themsevels in the foot with the most inexperienced and unapologetically liberal candidate to come along in decades.

    I don't see how Obama can be characterized as left-wing when he and Clinton have essentially the same positions on so many issues. As for experience, Clinton doesn't have much more of it, if any, than he does.

    Add to that the fact that one of the most "experienced" administrations in history helped us into the worst foreign policy blunders in history and help wreck the economy, and I think we can say experience is no substitute for good judgment. And judgment is shown in policy stances, where most people favor the Democratic positions held by both Obama and Clinton.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 04 June, 2008 12:22  

  • Anonymous is right: Clinton could indeed do deciding whatever Obama wins in november or loses. I do disagree about her "picking up the pieces" and being the frontrunner in 2012 if she loses. Unless she drops out soon and supports and campaigns for Obama hard, Democrats will blame her, not Obama, for losing the election and her political career will end in 2012.

    On McCain's speech, I thought it was horrendous in delievery epecially and somewhat in content. It does seem that McCain is going to attack Obama not as much on experience as judgement (i.e see Rev Wright coming up soon in GOP attack ads). In terms of delievery it was worse than even George W. Bush's speechs, which speaks for alot. A bad speech isn't going to ruin his candiancy but it does show that despite him be very competive in the Presidential election for today, the edge is still to the Democrats.

    By Anonymous jaxx raxor, At 04 June, 2008 12:37  

  • As usual, the Anonymous poster(s) charge in with criticisms of Obama based entirely on delusion. *Obama* got greedy on Saturday? By agreeing without reservation to seating the delegations in a way favorable to Clinton? Please. And the idea that Clinton needs to stay in to *help* Obama's candidacy is even more laughable.

    Obama needs her help, yes; he needs her help creating unity in the party. Fortunately, she began to do that today, to one degree or another, with her speech to AIPAC.

    By Blogger Stephen, At 04 June, 2008 13:07  

  • If Dems blame Hillary Clinton for nominating the political neophyte Barack Obama, then they are the most cynical folks in the land and do not deserve to lead this country. Sorry, Barry Obama will rise or fail on his own merits. He and his staff have leaned on Hillary to be the nemesis. How much longer can they milk it? They've destroyed her by using her to cover their tracks. Now, let's shine some light on those backroom machinations!

    Actually, dsimon, the Bush administration was one of the most "inexeprienced" administrations we've ever had. Bush had charm, charisma and straight-forward speaking style (sound familiar?)that wooed voters to his side. The difference between him and Obama is the Machiavelian-like leadership he was capable of. Along with the maniacal Dick Cheney they created one of the most secretive and menacing administrations in modern history. They should both rot in jail. I'm still hoping the Hague will haul in Donny Rumsfeld. If Obama listens well (heck, he's a virtual kid in a candy shop)to smart people (like Hillary Clinton) he may survive and possibly flourish. Only time will tell now. The dye is cast!

    By Anonymous Tom, At 04 June, 2008 16:33  

  • He and his staff have leaned on Hillary to be the nemesis. How much longer can they milk it?

    I don't see Obama or his staff "leaning" on anyone or "milking" anything. They ran a primary campaign, just like she did. Now they'll run a general election campaign.

    They've destroyed her by using her to cover their tracks.

    How did they destroy her career? They both ran for the nomination. Losing was always a possibility for both of them. I don't see anything the Obama campaign did that was so terrible for her, except winning.

    Actually, dsimon, the Bush administration was one of the most "inexeprienced" administrations we've ever had.

    Bush was inexperienced. But everyone around him was extremely experienced: Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, and so on. So the administration was tremendously experienced, possibly one of the most experienced we've seen in a while (many of those people were from his Dad's staff). But it didn't stop them from making absolutely horrendous decisions.

    If Obama listens well (heck, he's a virtual kid in a candy shop)to smart people (like Hillary Clinton)...

    I think it's clear that Obama is a very smart person.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 04 June, 2008 17:21  

  • McCain's very combative and distainful nature in his speeches reflect his bad tempers and the fact that he has been known as a hotheaded senator who is not afraid to cruse at his colleagues in the Senate when things don't go his way.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 05 June, 2008 02:37  

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