With Hillary Clinton’s decision to concede the Democratic race, Saturday now looms as a truly historic day, when Barack Obama will assume a place in political immortality beside John Paul Hammerschmidt and Frank D. White, the only other politicians in the world to whom the Clintons have been forced to say: You win, we lose.
Of course, Bill Clinton’s loss to Hammerschmidt in a 1974 Congressional race and his defeat at the hands of White in a 1980 gubernatorial race barely made a ripple outside Arkansas. But Hillary’s admission of defeat will echo around the globe, her international celebrity only underscoring the magnitude of the political upset Obama has engineered.
But, as always seems to be the case with the Clintons, the motives behind this move aren’t entirely clear. Does her looming concession represent a heartfelt decision to close ranks behind Obama and to subordinate her own political ambition to the best interests of her party? Or is she merely acknowledging the harsh and undeniable political realities that now confront her and attempting to segue into a new campaign – one for the vice presidential nomination?
Certainly, Bill and Hillary’s political history gives us reason to wonder. When Bill came up short against Hammerschmidt in ’74, he had barely congratulated his opponent before plunging into his next campaign – a bid for attorney general in 1976 that succeeded in large part because of the name recognition and political contacts that he’d accrued in his ’74 campaign. And when then-Governor Clinton lost his 1980 reelection bid to White, he wasted little time in plotting an ’82 rematch.
Sure, Bill would have preferred to win a seat in Congress in ’74, just as he would rather have not suffered the humiliation of getting booted from office in ’80. But on each occasion, he recognized instantly that defeat had set him up to launch a new, previously unexpected campaign. And on each occasion, he transitioned quickly to that new campaign and prevailed.
Hillary herself demonstrated a knack for such strategic thinking back when her husband was still in elected politics. After all, it was said to have been at her insistence that Bill specifically avoided congratulating Paul Tsongas on his victory over Bill in the 1992 New Hampshire primary. Instead, a beaming Bill took to the stage, ignored Tsongas, and declared himself “the Comeback Kid.” The media treated him like the winner, and the rest is history.
In the same way, there is ample reason – based on her actions over the past few days and the circumstances that immediately preceded the news that she plans to formally withdraw – to believe that Hillary, like her husband before her, is simply in the process of shifting her political goal: the presidency is now completely and absolutely out of reach for this year, but the vice presidency isn’t.
And so it was that Clinton chose a conference call with supporters on Tuesday – the very day that Obama was to dominate the news by reaching the magic delegate number – to indicate her willingness to run on Obama’s ticket. By revealing this in a private forum, she ensured that there’d be no footage of her actually saying this, thereby depriving the media of a clip that played over and over, which might make it look like she was begging.