by Jeremy Young | 6/02/2008 03:50:00 PM
(Cross-posted at The Wild, Wild Left.)

Though most historians (at least those willing to make their views known) are Obama supporters, there are some who support other candidates -- chiefly Ron Paul, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton. Though I don't really understand why anyone would support a Democrat who voted for the war and aligned herself with the DLC, I have in general a lot of respect for the Hillary supporters as scholars.

So it's baffling that so many of them would advance the patently silly notion that Obama is to blame for the fact that Hillary's doing so well.

Here's David Greenberg:

For all the excitement he has generated, Barack Obama—should he maintain his delegate lead over Hillary Clinton—will be the Democratic Party's weakest standard-bearer since primaries became the necessary route to securing the presidential nomination. No candidate has ever concluded these preliminary contests with so many rank-and-file Democrats against him.

Ann Little:

Hillary Clinton wins Puerto Rico by another blowout margin of 36%. (Does anyone wonder why the actual voters aren’t actually voting for Obama, despite the fact that he’ll certainly be the nominee? Was Howard Dean winning primaries in May and June despite John Kerry’s lock on the nomination? Why aren’t Democrats taking orders from their party leaders? Will they in November?)

And Sean Wilentz:

In every presidential election they have won, the Democrats have solidified their historic link to white workers, not dismissed them. Obama and the champions of a new party coalition appear to think that everything has suddenly changed, simply because of the force of their own desires. In any event, Obama had shown no ability thus far to attract the one constituency that has always spelled the difference between victory and defeat for the Democratic Party.

Here's the problem with this line of reasoning. It's true that Hillary Clinton has attracted more votes and more delegates than any losing candidate in Democratic Party history. But she's done so in large part by refusing to drop out of the race even after all signs indicated it was impossible for her to win. Little mentions that Howard Dean didn't continue to win primaries against Kerry after party grandees had declared Kerry the winner, but that's because Dean dropped out of the race when that happened and quickly mobilized to support the eventual nominee. John Edwards did the same a month later, despite strong showings in Southern states. Neither candidate remained in the race until Kerry clinched, despite their own continuing strength in regional primaries. (In fact, Dean actually won the primary in his home state, Vermont, after he'd officially dropped out, something that as far as I know has never been achieved by another candidate ever.) They dropped out when it became clear that they couldn't win because they knew that their continued presence in the race would only divide and destroy their party. And they're not alone in recent primary history: Paul Simon in 1988, Paul Tsongas in 1992, Lamar Alexander in 1996, Bill Bradley and John McCain in 2000, and Mitt Romney and John Edwards in 2008 all dropped out well before their support dried up or their victories became mathematically impossible. All these men fought hard while they were in the race, but all knew when staying in the race would be merely vanity, and they took care not to stay in past that point.

Hillary Clinton has chosen another route. She has determined that as long as there remains a mathematical possibility for her to win the nomination, she will remain in the race, no matter what damage her presence does to the party, the downticket races, or the eventual nominee, Barack Obama. Her decision in this regard is unusual but not unprecedented: Ronald Reagan in 1976, Ted Kennedy in 1980, Gary Hart in 1984, Jerry Brown in 1992, and Mike Huckabee in 2008 made the same choice. Of these, only Reagan had a real chance of winning by the time the convention rolled around. Kennedy's and Hart's decisions were similar to Clinton's, but if any Democrat wants to rerun the elections of 1980 or 1984, please let me know. Similarly, if anyone thinks we would have done better in those races with Ted "Chappaquiddick" Kennedy or Gary "Monkey Business" Hart as our nominees, please let me know as well. Finally, if anyone thinks Brown and Huckabee didn't do real damage to the eventual nominees of their parties by remaining in the race, please let me know what you're smoking, because I'd like some.

Candidates who respect their party don't stay in the race until the last dog dies; that's generally been the province of opportunists like Alan Keyes and Dennis Kucinich. Instead, they constantly weigh their realistic chances of winning against the damage that a protracted race will do to the eventual nominee. When it becomes clear that they aren't going to emerge the winner, they drop out and work tirelessly for the person who just beat them, because they'd rather see a member of their party win the general election than a member of the opposite party. Hillary's decision not to accede to the will of the people, to make Democrats hate Democrats, is her choice alone; and any damage the close race has done to Obama is on her, not on him.

I also want to address Greenberg's argument that Obama is somehow a "weak nominee" because Hillary has done so well in late primaries. In 1976, Ronald Reagan very nearly defeated a sitting President in a primary, something that hasn't happened since the Republicans refused to nominate Ulysses S. Grant for a third term in 1876. Had Reagan defeated Ford, he would have done so by only a few votes, because Ford enjoyed all the advantages of incumbency and establishment support. Had Reagan barely squeaked across the finish line in 1976, would commentators have remarked on what a "weak nominee" he was? No -- they would have lauded him for defeating all the powers that be through articulate campaigning and grassroots support. He would have been a strong nominee, not a weak one. The margin would have been irrelevant.

Similarly, Barack Obama has defeated a candidate who enjoyed all the advantages of incumbency, though she has never been President. Hillary Clinton is the most recognizable name in the Democratic Party; she raised an enormous war chest through her connections with the party establishment; her establishment support and endorsements scared out many strong opponents, such as Mark Warner and Evan Bayh. To suggest that Obama is a "weak" nominee because his margin of victory is slim is to ignore the fact that he is the strongest anti-establishment Democratic candidate in nearly forty years, and the first since 1972 to defeat a candidate with unified establishment support. The shocking thing is not that Hillary continues to win primaries; it's that she has lost any at all.

To be very blunt, the Hillary supporters really need to suck it up and realize just how bad a candidate they backed in this race. The fact is that Barack Obama won this thing months ago, and Hillary Clinton's continued presence in the race has done nothing but hurt her party's and Obama's chances in 2008. I don't blame her supporters for selfishly supporting her staying in the race because they wanted to see her win; I felt the same way about Dean in 2004. But it's ridiculous to ignore what her campaign has cost Democrats, or what her offensive and vile attacks on Obama have done to him as a candidate and as a person. Obama has withstood Hillary's attacks, but at a terrible cost to himself. He has had to disown a pastor who was like a father to him, leave a church that was like his family, all because Hillary played the politics of personal destruction against him. Truly, Hillary supporters should be very proud of the legacy of hate their candidate has left this race, a legacy that would have been her gift to the country had she been elected.



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Blogger David on 6/02/2008 10:11 PM:

Nice post. Ann Little doesn't like to have any of her ideas challenged, so you won't get much response from her. But the biggest mistake she makes is in calling the people who voted in Puerto Rico "Democrats" when such a party hardly exists on the island. Yesterday's low turnout there was indicative of the indifference most Puerto Ricans feel towards the election, and also that many of the groups which support independence for Puerto Rico openly boycott U.S. elections.

Anyway, I don't think Obama is limping. In the states where he has lost badly, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Puerto Rico, he hardly campaigned. He hardly campaigned because he knows he's already won the nomination and needs to work for the general. That's why he's been campaigning more in places like Florida, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, etc. He knows he has bigger game to catch (McCain) and has no interest in engaging in pointless battles with a defeated candidate (Clinton) who insists on continuing her candidacy (which is her right.)


Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/02/2008 10:16 PM:

David, thanks for your comment. I will say that I like Ann, and generally respect her opinions. I have as little to say to rabid Clinton supporters now as I did to rabid Kerry supporters in 2004, but I'm still friends with many of the latter, and I expect the same to be true with Hillary supporters in future.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 6/03/2008 1:59 AM:

I'm ambivalent about this (not so much ambivalent about Clinton at the moment, but that's another discussion). The mantra with regard to the MI/FL crew -- "can't change the rules in the middle of the game" -- seems to apply here as well. Clinton's arguments about her electability aren't really more specious than Obama's arguments about his: both are untested premises in an arena where experimentation is fundamentally impossible. The superdelegate structure means that the near-tie in pledged delegates can't really determine anything, nor is it supposed to, like the first 45 minutes of most basketball games, or most sacred scriptures; since neither candidate has successfully convinced the democratic voters, there is no such thing as inevitability.

I see Clinton's argument. And if she believes, as so many of her supporters do, that Obama's electability really is weak, that he's a truly untested, risky candidate, then what she's doing actually makes sense for the party.

I don't like the way she's campaigning (you're right about that, for sure), and I think she's a huge liability in a general election, but I don't think it's fair to dismiss her arguments without acknowledging the liminal state both sides (and the party) is really in.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 6/03/2008 3:01 AM:

p.s. Obama just set overturning unconstitutional executive orders as a first 100 days priority. If Clinton can't match it or do better, I may actually have found my tipping point issue.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/03/2008 3:13 AM:

For me, it's very simple: Hillary can't win. She hasn't been able to win since about mid-March. Therefore, her staying in the race when she can't win doesn't help the Democrats, no matter how weak or untested Obama may be.

Put another way, Carter 1980 may have been a very weak candidate, but nobody thanked Ted Kennedy for destroying him in the primary.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 6/03/2008 5:00 AM:

Hillary can't win

At risk of sounding facetious, it depends on your definition of "can't"....

I mostly agree with you, mind you, but you're looking at it from an outsider's tactical point of view and I'm trying to explain a mindset, without which you'll never successfully explain the tactical issue to the true believers.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/03/2008 1:44 PM:

Right, but it's not the Hillary supporters I'm angry at -- it's the candidate and her advisors. It's their job to look at things from a sober tactical view rather than that of a true believer -- and they haven't done so.