Democrats’ Dicey Presidential Politics

March 6, 2008

The Democratic Party cashiered Howard Dean and replaced him, fairly early in the process, with the deeply flawed John Kerry when it became apparent that Dean was unelectable. But what if party honchos, much later in the game, conclude Obama is unelectable? Look out.

Right now, it’s premature to conclude that Obama’s momentum has been permanently quashed. He won 12 states in a row before losing three out of four Tuesday night. But for a candidate whose main attraction has been his superhuman aura to lose those major contests should be cause for concern.

In terms of delegate count, Obama still holds a commanding lead. According to ABC, if Clinton were to win all 12 remaining states with 55 percent of the vote, she would end up with 1,793 delegates, short of Obama’s 1,841. If that scenario were reversed, Obama would end up with 1,902 and Clinton 1,732, which would leave Obama still short of the 2,024 delegates required.

Assuming no changes in the super-delegates from their present leanings, Obama would need to win 77 percent of the remaining pledged delegates to hit 2,024, which is extremely unlikely given the Democratic rules of proportional delegate allocation. But Clinton would need a staggering 94 percent.

Obviously, neither will win without movement of the super-delegates, and Obama will likely end up ahead in pledged delegates and overall popular vote even if Hillary continues to do well, including in the possible do-over contests in Michigan and Florida.

If Tuesday turns out to have been just a temporary speed bump for the Obama juggernaut and he regains his momentum, Clinton will have no credibility in urging Obama-prone super-delegates to defect.

But if things break Hillary’s way from this point forward, the situation will get much dicier. Hillary might not have closed the gap, but she will have severely damaged Obama and his mystique of electability.

If at that point the party powers believe Obama has a glass jaw or doesn’t have the staying power under fire to endure a contentious battle against John McCain, they’ll face a dilemma of enormous proportions. Short of Obama voluntarily bowing out, how will they avoid an internecine bloodbath if the super-delegates break toward Hillary and give her the nomination even though she trails both in popular vote and pledged delegates?

The inevitable elephant in this room full of donkeys will be the racial component. The Democratic Party, which depends on some 90 percent of the African American vote, can scarcely afford such a scandal.

Of course, such concerns never seem to deter the Clintons. It’s all about winning, no matter what the cost. Obama better concentrate on putting her away convincingly between now and then, which will be easier said than done when you consider the possible reasons for Hillary’s turnaround.

It could simply be that she was always supposed to win those states and she managed to hang on. But even there, she couldn’t have done so without holding back the Obama tidal wave, which she did.

At any rate, it seems she either convinced voters that Obama really doesn’t yet have the experience or gravitas to handle that 3 a.m. crisis call or that he actually does have weaknesses (NAFTA-gate, Rezko, etc.) and thus isn’t a god after all. And don’t forget the urging of a certain shrewd talk-show host that Republican voters cross over for Hillary.

Since exit polls show that voters who decided in the last three days went Hillary’s way by an almost 2-to-1 margin, it’s safe to infer that whatever other factors were at play, Hillary’s negative campaigning worked. Thus we can be sure of more of the same in the coming weeks, which will present Obama with a dilemma of his own.

How will he be able to fend off Hillary’s attacks without going negative himself? And if he gets down in the dirt with her, does he not betray his promise to remain above the fray as a uniter? Gods don’t get dirty.

Meanwhile, if Hillary also continues to play up the theme that Obama isn’t ready for that 3 a.m. call, and Barack fights back on that turf, they will both be playing into John McCain’s hands because the 3 a.m. call has to do with national security.

All of which is to say that though most polls show either Obama or Hillary defeating McCain in November, Democrats have their hands full, and they are guaranteed to get fuller. This should be fun to watch.