Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Hillary ends her campaign

Sen. Hillary Clinton’s last slender chance of being elected president slipped away yesterday on the high plains of Montana and South Dakota and in the anxious minds of leaders of the Democratic Party, who wanted someone who was certain of winning in November.

No one is absolutely convinced that Sen. Barack Obama is that candidate, but most of the remaining superdelegates — party leaders generally — were finally persuaded that buying Sen. Clinton’s theory about why she was the stronger candidate posed consequences that were simply too grave to risk. Her theory, a quite convincing one actually, was that she was far better able than Obama to win the battleground states of the Midwest and the Southern fringes — Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee — that a Democrat has to win. The primary results and polls bear her out. If the election were today, the polls say, she likely would get an electoral-college majority and he would not, although he has a bigger popular-vote margin over John McCain than she.

But that is a craven premise upon which to overturn the narrow but clear preferences of Democratic voters, which were expressed in a sizable majority of the states and territories and in the election of most delegates. Even before the polls closed in Montana and South Dakota, the last states to vote, superdelegates were declaring their support for Obama. The party at this late date cannot sidestep the first serious black candidate for president, who ascended to the top by running a smarter campaign, raising more money and exciting more people than any politician in memory, including Bill Clinton. The breach of idealism would be so stunning, the repercussions so far-reaching, that repairs could not be made by the election in November and perhaps not for years to come.

Montana and South Dakota were relatively unimportant because they are reliably Republican states in November unless a third party, the Libertarian, catches fire and drains off Republican support, as Ross Perot did for Bill Clinton in South Dakota in 1992. Sen. Clinton campaigned hard in South Dakota, one of the few mountain and plains states where she did try to compete, in the hope that continuing her string of triumphs at the end would add an exclamation point to her theory that she was the stronger candidate.

That she did well enough in those states to claim a good share of the delegates proved her greatest strategic blunder. She had largely skipped the caucuses and primaries in the sparsely populated plains states because their delegate production was so small and the states unimportant for Democrats in the great scheme because they voted for Republicans. The strategy was to capture the big states and deliver a knockout blow early.

Obama, on the other hand, organized them and swept a big majority of delegates across that vast pastureland. Even in Texas, where Clinton won a 100,000-vote majority in the primary, Obama organized for the weird caucuses later that night and wound up collecting more delegates from Texas than she. If she had competed aggressively in the mountains and plains, their positions yesterday would have been reversed. The delegate split would have been close enough to deny him the lead. She had competed strenuously in only one western caucus state, Nevada, because it was inserted between Iowa and New Hampshire, and she won. She might have repeated that elsewhere.

The second-guessing must be left to the historians and the architects of future campaigns. Now, Sen. Clinton has a single duty. It is to acknowledge the party’s choice and end her campaign with the grace that she has so often shown. Even in defeat, she has breached the glass ceiling by demonstrating that a woman possessed some of the most compelling credentials that anyone has marshaled for presidency in a half-century. Her campaign was one of the epochal events in political history but it is history.