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For Obama, The Right Way to Win

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

For Barack Obama in June 2008, Ulysses Grant in April 1865 offers a useful role model.

After a long and brutal civil war, Grant sought Robert E. Lee's surrender, reminding him of the "hopelessness of further resistance" and urging him to prevent "any further effusion of blood."

When Lee finally accepted that reality, Grant was "magnanimous in victory," as Jay Winik writes in "April 1865," his account of that fateful month. The Union general let Lee choose the time and place of his surrender and agreed to terms designed to avoid, Grant later explained, "an unnecessary humiliation."

Lee's officers were allowed to keep their horses and personal weapons; Grant provided food for Lee's hungry troops. "This will have a very happy effect upon my army," a grateful Lee declared.

Obama's battle with Hillary Clinton is, of course, far less consequential. For all the round-the-clock coverage, the world will little note nor long remember a party primary fight. Yet Grant's behavior at Appomattox is nonetheless instructive about the task facing Obama. Certainly, how Clinton conducts herself in the months ahead has important implications both for Obama's prospects in November and Clinton's future beyond that.

But how deftly Obama handles the endgame can shape the reaction of Clinton, and Clinton's army, to what feels at the moment like a crushing defeat. Winning gracefully can be as hard as -- and more important than -- losing gracefully.

To talk to the partisans in both campaigns is to understand the degree of healing that is required. Any primary fight ends with bruised feelings and nursed grievances. This one, having lasted longer, has more than its share.

Saturday's epic battle at the meeting of the party's ordinarily obscure Rules and Bylaws Committee offers a case in point.

From the Obama camp's view, its side had the raw power to impose far harsher terms than what was ultimately agreed on, and it deserves credit for pulling back. The Clinton forces, despite their good deal, stubbornly refused to compromise, even in defeat.

From the perspective of the Clinton campaign, its candidate was arbitrarily and unjustly deprived of delegates she had won, as the party summarily swept aside its rules to resolve the mess.

Both sides are correct, actually. But Obama, on the verge of victory, would have been well advised to give just a little bit more -- four more delegates, to be precise, that the Clinton campaign claims were "hijacked," to use Harold Ickes's powerful description, from its Michigan vote.

Don Fowler, the former party chairman who supported Clinton but ultimately accepted the compromise, describes his conversations on this point with the Obama negotiator. "I said . . . this is nuts. Why don't you give them this and make you look magnanimous and everybody would be content. . . . They had the votes so they won the day on that, but it certainly engendered a lot of ill will."


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