It makes perfect sense that Hillary Clinton would jump all over Barack Obama for the supposedly disparaging remarks he made about working-class Pennsylvanians at a fund-raiser last week. But she’d better be careful, because the whole episode actually underscores the uneasy balancing act she faces in what is, in all likelihood, the last phase of her candidacy.
In piling on after Obama’s comments were revealed on Friday—if you somehow missed it, he had theorized that some blue collar workers, made “bitter” by their own economic plight, “cling to guns and religion” and embrace anti-immigrant rhetoric—Clinton was adhering to Political Strategy 101: When you’re behind and your opponent commits a gaffe, treat it like the equivalent of Gerald Ford’s on-air liberation of Poland in 1976.
Predictably, she offered a hearty, moralizing defense of the working man at a Pennsylvania campaign stop on Saturday. “I was taken aback by the demeaning remarks Senator Obama made about people in small-town America,” she told a group of factory workers. “Senator Obama’s remarks are elitist and they are out of touch.”
The passage of her speech devoted to defending gun owners is ironic, given the fits she and her husband have given that group over the years—but there was nothing politically untoward about her willingness to seize on Obama’s error.
The problem for Clinton, though, is that she has reached the point in her White House quest where she must consider the impact of any major tactical decision on whatever post-2008 political aspirations she might have. She can still win the nomination his year, sort of in the same way that a team trailing by 14 points with three minutes left can still win a basketball game: By catching every break imaginable (plus a few that no one could have expected) and by having the opposition utterly self-destruct. And even then, the chances of success are probably only 50/50.
That means that Clinton, in order to knock off Obama, must roll up a series of much-bigger-than-expected victories in the remaining contests—starting with Pennsylvania—ending the primary season with momentum and somehow erasing the popular-vote advantage that Obama now enjoys (or drawing close enough to credibly argue that a new vote in Florida would tip the scales her way). She also needs Obama to commit one gaffe after another, creating such panic about his fall prospects that the overwhelming majority (as in 75 percent or more) of the superdelegates who are now uncommitted will side with her, even if Obama has more pledged delegates (which he definitely will) and more popular votes (which he almost definitely will).
This is all theoretically possible, but extremely implausible and unlikely. The signs are now overwhelming that most of the uncommitted superdelegates will move to Obama within days of the end of the primary campaign in early June.
She is only 61 years old, meaning that she’ll only be 65 in 2012 when the Democratic nomination could be wide open once again. If Obama loses this fall, then Clinton could very conceivably emerge from the 2008 election as the all-but-anointed Democratic standard-bearer next time.
This, then, is where her current balancing act comes into play. Sure, it makes sense to play up Obama’s gaffe and to hope that he might soon commit another, thereby creating the impression of a “pattern” that might unnerve Democratic voters and superdelegates. The slim chance that Clinton has of securing this year’s nomination depends on a chain of events like that playing out.
But at this point, it could actually be argued that her odds of winning the nomination in 2012 are now better than they are for 2008. But that is dependent on two things: Obama has to lose, and Clinton can’t have Democrats blaming her for Obama’s defeat. This could explain why, despite her campaign’s ominous promise of a “kitchen sink” strategy to beat Obama, Clinton has lately pursued a less overtly aggressive campaign. Sure, she is still tough on Obama when he gives her openings (as he did with his “bitter” comment), but her latest round of television ads in Pennsylvania was much softer and more biography-driven than previous spots.
In previous Democratic and Republican primaries, other candidates have been in the same spot Clinton now occupies, clinging to longshot bids that attracted widespread support but that—mathematically—were sure to fall short. Gary Hart in 1984 and Ted Kennedy in 1980 are the two most obvious examples for Democrats, while Ronald Reagan in 1976 stands out on the G.O.P. side.
But there was a key difference in those three cases: The Democrats in ’84 and ’80 and the G.O.P. in ’76 were parties in disarray, facing likely defeat in the fall and willingly plunging into civil war in the spring. Democrats in 2008, after two near misses, very badly want to win this fall—and fully expect to. Hart, Kennedy and Reagan may have hurt their party’s general election prospects with prolonged and divisive primary campaigns, but they paid very little price for it. But if Obama goes down to defeat in the fall and Democrats chalk it up to the ugly campaign Clinton waged in the spring, her prospects for 2012 will be radically diminished.
This is something the Clinton campaign seems to have kept in mind lately—and, as they decide how to address Obama’s gaffe, will likely continue to keep in mind.