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Too Soon To Stop This Movie

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The unyielding arithmetic of the Democrats' delegate selection rules makes Hillary Clinton's prospects of winning the nomination dim -- and that's the rosy scenario.

The prolonged primary contest, with candidates and aides bickering like cranky toddlers partway through a long, hot car ride, is bad for the Democratic Party.

Still, Clinton shouldn't drop out. Not yet, anyway.

The party adopted procedures for picking the nominee that no one expected would matter. Now, having worked hard and played by those rules, to employ a Clintonian phrase, Clinton is under pressure to quit before the game is over.

Why should she? Clinton trails Barack Obama by at least 133 delegates. At a comparable point in the 1984 race, Gary Hart was more than 600 delegates behind Walter Mondale. At this stage in 1980, Ted Kennedy lagged Jimmy Carter by nearly 1,000 delegates.

Clinton believes -- and millions of voters agree -- that she would be a stronger candidate against John McCain and would make a better president. She has a path to the nomination, albeit steep: a resounding win in Pennsylvania that underscores Obama's difficulties with working-class whites, followed by a clear victory in Indiana and a narrower-than-expected loss in North Carolina. Most of all, Clinton's chances hinge on the audacious hope that Obama somehow self-destructs.

Under these closely divided circumstances, more voters in more states deserve a chance to be heard, rather than having a choice made for them. Ambivalent superdelegates would benefit from the instruction of additional primaries.

Back in December, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell told me he wasn't planning to endorse a candidate because his state's primary was "so late we won't matter." Rendell has since endorsed Clinton, and the April 22 contest has turned out to matter a great deal, indeed.

Voters ought to have a chance to weigh in after learning about the troubling sermons of Obama's pastor and hearing Obama's intelligent, if incomplete, explanation. Voters ought to be able to take into account Clinton's troubling inflation of her experience, such as the Bosnian tarmac sniper fire that wasn't.

The pressure on Clinton to get out isn't sexist bullying by the big boys, as her campaign has implied. It takes some nerve for a campaign to complain about bullying when its big donors have just fired off the fundraising equivalent of a blackmail letter to Nancy Pelosi, demanding that the House speaker back off her statements that superdelegates shouldn't overturn the results of the primaries.

Rather, the clamor for Clinton's departure stems from Democrats' well-founded fear that they will manage to blow what should have been an easy win. Even if the campaigns were playing nice, continuing the fight imposes political costs. The way it's going, McCain's admakers need only follow the candidates with video cameras, then splice in the relevant footage once the nominee is chosen.

So Clinton shouldn't drop out -- but she, and her advisers, should stop the personal attacks. Obama's campaign should cool it, too, though the candidate himself has been more restrained than Clinton. There's a difference between drawing distinctions and drawing blood. Clinton's legitimate claim to stay in the race doesn't extend to savaging Obama so fiercely that it severely damages his general election prospects.


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