Yesterday afternoon, I blogged about Maureen Dowd’s column in yesterday’s New York Times, in which she argued that Hillary Clinton’s willingness to out-and-out attack Barack Obama — even though the resulting damage will probably inure only to John McCain’s benefit, not Hillary’s, in the end — might indicate a self-interested preference for a McCain victory in November. The theory, of course, is that an Obama defeat in the general election would open the door for Hillary, The Sequel in 2012. "Some top Democrats are increasingly worried that the ClintonsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢
divide-and-conquer strategy is nihilistic: Hillary or no democrat," I quoted Dowd as saying.
Silly me, thinking Maureen Dowd had an original thought.
As it turns out, this very topic has been the subject of a raging debate in the center-left blogosphere for almost a week, with various prominent bloggers weighing in both sides of the issue — creating a dialogue that’s much more illuminating and insightful, unsurprisingly, than a Maureen Dowd column. Details after the jump.
It all started with Matthew Yglesias, who wrote on Friday:
Under the circumstances, I find it maddening that the party leadership
isn’t acting to push her out of the race. Dragging things out ’till the
convention stands a much, much, much higher chance of hurting Barack
Obama’s chances in the general election than it does of securing
Clinton the nomination. I understand the calculation from the point of
view of the heart of the Clinton campaign — McCain beating Obama in
the general means the Clintons still control the party, so there’s no
need to worry about helping McCain and you might as well hold on and
hope lightning strikes. But the broader mass of unaffiliated elites and
Clinton supporters who aren’t literally on her payroll are, in my view,
acting in a massively irresponsible manner.
That was actually at least the second time Yglesias had advanced the Hillary-wants-Obama-to-lose thesis. He had previously predicted on March 3, two days before Texas and Ohio, that Clinton would continue her fight, "seeing the damage it’ll do to the party as a feature, rather than a
bug, since a crippled Obama who loses to John McCain could set them up
for another run in 2012."
Anyway, Kevin Drum replied on Saturday:
Now, it’s true that Hillary has only a minuscule chance of winning
the nomination at this point, and it’s also true that she probably is
hoping that lightning strikes. As in, maybe Tony Rezko will break down
on the witness stand Perry Mason style and implicate Obama in a massive
influence peddling ring. Or maybe a chunk of red kryptonite will hit
Obama in the head and transform him into a gigantic lizardman that
destroys Pittsburgh. That would probably cost him a few votes in PA.
So fine: Hillary’s chances are slim and maybe it’s time to withdraw. But how do
we hop from there to an out-of-the-blue factual assertion that Hillary
would just as soon see Obama lose in November? That’s crazy. There’s
just no evidence that anyone in the Clinton campaign actually thinks
this way. It’s like the 90s all over again and it’s driving me nuts.
My fellow Obama supporters need to get a grip. I know that
resistance to CDS seems futile these days, but resist anyway! Hillary
has a long, long history as a partisan animal. She’d no more root for a
McCain victory than she would for another attack by al-Qaeda. What’s
more, on the level of pure political tactics, she knows perfectly well
Ã¢â‚¬â€ and so should we Ã¢â‚¬â€ that if she loses neither she nor Bill will
control anything and she’ll have no future presidential prospects in 2012 or any other year. It’s either 2008 or nothing for Hillary. …
Hillary’s running a very tough campaign, and she might be making a
mistake staying in the race. But she’s not rooting for John McCain and
she’s not secretly plotting Barack Obama’s downfall. If anyone has any
evidence to the contrary, I’m all ears.
On Sunday, Ezra Klein endorsed the Drum view:
I don’t think you need to reach for far-out explanations to explain
the continuation and ferocity of the Clinton Campaign. Rather, you just
need an old political maxim: All campaigns look winnable to the people
inside them. Just ask Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and
Dennis Kucinich. Ask Steve Forbes, Pat Robertson, Elizabeth Dole, and
Dan Quayle. And Clinton’s star power, and her lead in Pennsylvania, and
the videos of Wright, and all the other disparate data points that
exist in an election this large mean there’s more than enough
information for her to construct a plausible internal narrative
explaining how she wins this thing. And for a candidate who’s come so
far and gotten so close, admitting defeat requires a pretty enormous
Now, I think she’s wrong. I think Obama’s lead in pledged delegates and his lead in the popular
vote effectively end her chances. I think that his implosion is
unlikely, and if it happens, the delegates will be focused on placating
his voters (particularly African-Americans), not fulfilling Clinton’s
hopes. And that might even lead them towards a third choice. But be
that as it may, it’s not hard to understand why Clinton thinks she can,
and should, keep this fight going. The mystery is why the party’s
elders, and a critical mass of superdelegates, haven’t stepped in to
stop it. My hunch is that they’re waiting till the end of the
primaries, or at least past the next few big ones, but they’re the
rational players here who need to accurately assess the political
landscape. The Clinton campaign is just acting, well, like a campaign.
You don’t need to think up a nefarious or complex explanation for their
On Monday, Jonathan Chait weighed in, straddling the fence:
Obviously, it’s impossible to know for sure
either way, since it’s a question of motive. I think Clinton’s
political interests clearly militate toward a harsh campaign against
Obama. Her only chance of winning is to disqualify him as a general
election candidate, giving the superdelegates no chance but to
contravene the elected delegates, which they are otherwise reluctant to
do. This also serves her interests because if Obama loses, she would be
the front-runner in 2012. (Drum asserts, "It’s either 2008 or nothing
for Hillary," but he doesn’t say why, and the assertion seems wrong on
it’s face — she won’t be too old in 2012, her Democratic fanbase will
remain intact, and her interest in the presidency will presumably be
Now, is Clinton actively thinking along
these lines? Like I said, you can’t know. … An easier question to answer is, How much
does Clinton value her own interests versus those of the Democratic
Party? And here the answer is very clear: Clinton is acting as if she
doesn’t care about the Democratic Party’s interests at all, except
insofar as they coincide with her own. Her continued campaign is
significantly damaging Obama’s general election prospects, and this
would perhaps be defensible if she had a strong chance at the
nomination, but she doesn’t. As Politico
recently reported, "One important Clinton adviser estimated to Politico
privately that she has no more than a 10 percent chance of winning her
race against Barack Obama, an appraisal that was echoed by other
To inflict serious damage on the likely
nominee in order to pursue a one-in-ten chance of securing the
nomination is, ipso facto, an act of extreme selfishness. Whether she
sees the damage to Obama’s prospects as a feature or a bug is
interesting but beside the point.
Later Monday, Steve Benen joined the fray:
I think KevinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s right and MattÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s wrong. I was deeply frustrated when
Clinton started praising John McCainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s experience and
commander-in-chief qualifications a couple of weeks ago, but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a
stretch to look at those unhelpful and counter-productive remarks as
evidence of her actually wanting a Republican president in 2009.
As far as I can tell, based on all available evidence, Clinton loves
her country and loves her party. SheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s been playing hardball for a few
months against Obama, and has engaged in some campaign tactics I found
more than a little troublesome, but I consider this more evidence of
her willingness to do what it takes to get the nomination, not evidence
of her trying to sabotage U.S. interests by helping McCainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s candidacy.
As for Chait, I think he may be assuming certain motivations that
may or may not exist. He argues, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Clinton is acting as if she doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t
care about the Democratic PartyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s interests at all, except insofar as
they coincide with her own.Ã¢â‚¬Â That very well may be Ã¢â‚¬â€ IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not in a
position to say for sure Ã¢â‚¬â€ but hereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a different angle to consider:
isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t it at least possible that Clinton is acting in such a way to help
the Democratic Party as she sees it?
In other words, at Clinton HQ right now, a team of advisors are
likely thinking, Ã¢â‚¬Å“If ObamaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the nominee, Democrats lose. We may be the
only ones who realize it, and we may only have a 10% shot, but we need
to keep fighting, keep tearing Obama down, and keep this damaging
process going in order to save the party and protect the partyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s
This isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t to say this perspective is right Ã¢â‚¬â€ indeed, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m pretty
sure itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ridiculous Ã¢â‚¬â€ but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also likely a mistake to assume
nefarious motives. Clinton thinks sheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the only candidate standing
between us and a third term of Bush policies. From her perspective, her
interests and the partyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s interests are one and the same.
Given the landscape, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m fairly certain sheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mistaken. But if
thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s solid evidence that sheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s actively working towards helping
Republicans, I havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t seen it. The Clinton campaign is probably
working under faulty assumptions, not disloyal ones.
On Tuesday, the debate leapt out of the blogosphere into the pages of a newspaper that’s slightly more explicitly liberal than the New York Times, namely The Guardian, whose columnist Michael Tomasky wrote:
Let’s just agree for this column to forge ahead into the
hypothetical and examine a fascinating question that’s popped up in the
blogosphere in recent days.
The question is: Does Hillary Clinton, aware deep-down that she
probably won’t be the Democratic nominee, secretly want Barack Obama to
lose to John McCain so that she can run again in 2012? …
I’ll weigh in with a finger on the scale in Yglesias’s direction,
but while making something clear: I think it’s only natural and human
for a part of someone in Clinton’s position to feel this way, provided she only thinks it and doesn’t act on it. …
[H]ere’s where things get dicey for Hillary 2012. If she were seen by
a significant portion of Democrats as not having done all she could for
Obama in 2008, she’d face massive hostility in 2010 when she started
making noises about running again. So she has to be active in helping
him, which of course creates a sort of double paradox: she has to work
hard for the very outcome that works against her own future interests,
knowing that said work is the only thing that will in fact help her
future interests! Got it?
There are many who say she’s already done terrible damage to Obama,
and that every day she stays in the race is a day that she only does
more damage to him. She and her husband have indeed hurt Obama, but not
yet in a way that’s irreversible. If Obama is the nominee, both
Clintons need to give strong convention speeches and campaign for Obama
in a way that seems more genuine than grudging (I ’spect it’ll be
pretty easy to tell!).
Like I said: it’s OK for her to think about an Obama loss, but she
can’t act like she wants an Obama loss. It’s a fair moral distinction
that society accepts in most realms. No one ever got thrown in prison
for thinking about robbing a bank.
Finally, later Tuesday, Kevin Drum weighed in again, repeating his assertion that "it’s 2008 or nothing for Hillary":
The Clinton machine obviously has its admirers, but I think it’s
held together mainly by its reputation for winning, not by any
widespread warmth for Hillary. If she loses, that reputation vanishes.
What’s more, if she’s already under suspicion of sabotaging the party
merely because she’s continuing to run her primary campaign, what are
the odds she can escape unscathed if Obama actually goes on to lose? No
matter what kind of support she gives him, I’d say slim and none.
Anything can happen in four years. But Democrats have never been
very kindly disposed toward primary losers, and Hillary sure doesn’t
seem likely to be an exception. I’m putting my money on her being smart
enough to know this. In fact, Occam’s razor suggests that this
is why she’s waging such a tough campaign. Not because she thinks it
will set her up for 2012, but because she knows perfectly well this is
her last chance.
Then on Wednesday, Dowd’s column his newsstands, rehashing the point without any of the intriguing nuance.
Blogosphere 1, New York Times 0. :)