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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Where Does Clinton Go From Here?

There are a lot of mixed messages out there about the future of the Clinton campaign. The dominant assessment is that this thing is over. In fact, Taegan Goddard helpfully collects six quotes from the punditry in a post titled, "It's Basically Over," at Political Wire.

Walter Shapiro writes at Salon, "Tuesday night was likely Clinton's last major window of opportunity in this race -- and despite her game face and spirited spin, she undoubtedly knows that it all but slammed on her fingers."

Huffington Post's Thomas Edsall says, "In the universe of political clich├ęs, she is on life support, her oxygen choked off, her knees buckling, unable to stanch the bleeding, down for an eight count, on the ropes, praying for the bell to ring, desperate to get her wind back."

On MSNBC, Tim Russert told Keith Olbermann, "We now know who the democratic nominee is going to be and no one is going to dispute it."

Well, no one other than Clinton, anyway. She says she'll go on. But it's unlikely that she still sees a nomination as a realistic possibility. To go back to Goddard, he asks the question, What Does Hillary Want?

Despite most analysts declaring the Democratic presidential race "basically over," Sen. Barack Obama moves into a very uncomfortable phase of his campaign. He's essentially locked up the nomination but his main rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, is still in the race.

It reminds me of 1984 and 1988 when Jesse Jackson kept his White House bids alive all the way until the Democratic conventions. The question everyone asked all summer long was, "What does Jesse want?" He couldn't win, but he held enough power to be a voice at the table.

Goddard comes up with three possibilities -- Help retiring her campaign debt, a major policy win (dictating a plank for the party's platform), or input on the VP pick. Few seem to believe that the "dream ticket" of Obama/Clinton is anything other than a dream and Goddard seems to agree. His picks for a VP Clinton would like are "Sen. Evan Bayh or Gen. Wesley Clark." Of those two, I'd be extremely happy with Clark.

"It also means it won't be Bill Richardson," he says. Cool with me. I think Richardson would be wasted in that position anyway -- he's much more qualified to be Secretary of State, which is a more consequential position than understudy for the president.

You'll notice that one possibility of "what Hillary wants" Goddard didn't consider was seating Florida's and Michigan's delegations. There's a reason for that -- they wouldn't make any damned difference now. MSNBC's Domenico Montanaro ran the numbers and the sums weren't good for Hillary.

...if Florida and Michigan were seated as is and Obama got the uncommitted delegates in Michigan, Clinton would net an additional 32 delegates from Florida and 18 from Michigan -- for a total net of 50. So add those numbers into the current pledged delegate count and Obama still would lead in the pledged delegate count by more than 100, approximately 110 in fact. So let's use 110 as the baseline. For Clinton to overtake him in the pledged delegate lead using THEIR math on Florida and Michigan, she'd need to win 75% of all remaining delegates. That's an impossible task...

I think at this point Clinton knows she's out, but she knows she has leverage. She may have known that for some time. The most common belief is that she's looking to retire her debt, but that may be because of reports that she'd loaned her campaign millions -- they were all over the place yesterday.

Whatever it is that she wants, she should start talking about it now. There's no reason to think she has to limit her wishes to one thing. "[A] prompt withdrawal from the contest for the Democratic nomination offers Sen. Hillary Clinton the prospect of major rewards," writes Tom Edsall. And those "major rewards" are many.

In addition to having the Obama campaign pay off her debt (something he could easily afford -- McCain's still lagging in fundraising), Edsall says "the odds of her winning a top leadership spot in the Senate would improve dramatically if she gracefully conceded now."

While Clinton currently has her eye focused on only one thing, the presidential nomination, if she loses -- as appears increasingly likely -- her stature in the Senate will depend, in part, on whether she is ultimately seen as helping or hurting Obama's chances in November.

With an expanded Senate majority an almost sure bet for November, Clinton would find herself in a position to do a lot of good for her own causes if she were able to exert more leadership. But this is only true if there's a Democrat in the Oval Office. And there may be a way to do that, while remaining in the race and retiring her debt herself through fundraising -- by joining Obama in doubleteaming McCain.

"Clinton's status in the Democratic party will be enhanced if she finds a timely and honorable way to become a strong supporter of an Obama-led ticket in the general election," says Brookings scholar Tom Mann. "She can do that by remaining in the race but directing all of her campaign rhetoric against John McCain or by suspending her campaign immediately."

For herself, Clinton seems to have answered the question of "What Hillary wants." She's just not sharing that info. Lawrence O'Donnell reported a conversation he had with an unnamed "senior campaign official and Clinton confidante," who tried like hell to avoid telling him that Hillary was going to drop out -- and failed.

"He could not bring himself to say the words 'Hillary will drop out by June 15,' but that is clearly what he meant. I kept saying, 'So, Hillary will drop out by June 15,' and he kept saying, 'We will have a nominee by June 15.' He stressed what a reasonable person Hillary is," O'Donnell writes. "Everything about our conversation implied that he had already had this reality-based discussion with Hillary."

Whatever the future holds for Team Hillary, it's clear the dream has died. But Clinton still has gas in the bus -- the campaign is still functioning, if hobbled by debt and impossibility. Where the bus is going is the question. There are a lot of options left for Clinton, many of them good, but the White House is not among them.


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