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What Hillary Wants

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, May 23, 2008

Commentators trying to discern Hillary Clinton's endgame strategy have posited any number of wheels-within-wheels scenarios worthy of a spy novel. The simple truth has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with instinct: Keep moving forward until you drop.

It's not that she's making a calculated play for the vice presidency or trying to set herself up for another campaign in 2012 or 2016. To those who know her, it's that she really wants to be president, and that she has come tantalizingly close, and that she's going to keep moving toward that goal even if there's no obvious way to reach it. At this point, her campaign is about getting to tomorrow, and then getting to the next day, and then getting to the day after that.

Long ago, the Clinton campaign took to heart the Talking Heads' advice to "stop making sense." Back in January, the campaign's position was that amassing delegates was the only true measure of who was winning the nomination. But when Barack Obama surged ahead in the tally of pledged delegates, winning 11 primaries and caucuses in a row, the Clinton brain trust started making a case for "the popular vote" as the most reliable indicator of the party's wishes.

Does an aggregate count of votes mean anything when some states held closed primaries in which only registered Democrats could participate, some states held open primaries where independents and/or Republicans could also vote, and some states held caucuses that basically involved a show of hands in gymnasiums and community centers?

It means nothing. But the Clinton campaign has found a way to claim that if for some reason you did this ridiculous exercise of lumping together apples, oranges and bowling balls, and finally came up with two numbers, hers would be greater than Obama's. Since Obama now leads substantially in both pledged delegates and superdelegates -- and since he has enormous leads in fundraising and the number of states won -- the spurious "popular vote" metric is all that Clinton has. So she's playing the hand she was dealt.

Even this tenuous advantage, however, requires counting all the votes cast for Clinton in Michigan, where Obama wasn't on the ballot, and in Florida, where neither candidate campaigned. A few months ago, Clinton had no problem with the fact that votes in those two states -- which defied Democratic Party officials by moving their primaries up in the calendar -- wouldn't count. Rules, after all, were rules.

Now, maybe rules aren't rules after all. Keep moving forward until you drop. In a speech Wednesday, Clinton evoked the Declaration of Independence, the abolitionist movement, the civil rights struggle and the campaign for women's suffrage as she demanded that the votes from two unrecognized primaries be counted.

"Over the top" is an inadequate characterization of the speech Clinton gave in Boca Raton, Fla. She spoke of "a shared civic faith . . . equal justice under the law . . . extending the frontiers of our democracy," and even the men and women who "knelt down on that bridge in Selma to pray and were beaten within an inch of their lives."

"Now, I've heard some say that counting Florida and Michigan would be changing the rules," Clinton said.

Yes, it would be.

"I say that not counting Florida and Michigan," Clinton went on, "is changing a central governing rule of this country -- that whenever we can understand the clear intent of the voters, their votes should be counted."

Any Democratic politician who goes to Florida and rails about the "clear intent" of voters is making a not-so-subtle reference to the post-election mess in 2000, when the nation learned more than it ever wanted to know about hanging chads.

It won't work, though.

Clinton knows that even the disputed delegates she "won" in Florida and Michigan won't get her to the magic number she needs to win the nomination. Some commentators have speculated that she wants to have the votes counted simply so that she can semi-plausibly claim to have had more popular support than Obama, a distinction that would serve her well if she ran again in four or eight years. I say dream on; the Clintons don't do moral victories.

Hillary Clinton is after the White House, and if that means using the Florida and Michigan "issue" to tie the party in knots until the convention, so be it.

If that's not what party leaders want, they'd better do something. Because Clinton is going to keep moving forward.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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