A Loser's Tactic From Obama's Winning Campaign

A compromise on the status of the Florida and Michigan delegations now seems imminent, one that will net Hillary Clinton nowhere near the delegate windfall she’d need to threaten Barack Obama’s stranglehold on the Democratic nomination.

And so, in a way, Obama’s strategy of sidestepping and delaying the Michigan and Florida matter for the past four months has succeeded. The issue has finally been forced by a long-scheduled meeting of the D.N.C.’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, but Clinton has little leverage with the panel’s uncommitted – read: pragmatic – members. By Saturday, the matter will soon be resolved to the satisfaction of all but a few Clinton diehards, and Obama’s nomination all but cemented.

But as Braves manager Bobby Cox is fond of saying: Don’t confuse favorable outcomes with good decisions.

Obama had several chances to defuse this issue months ago, but he passed, calculating that ignoring it until the end of the process would be the safest course. That lack of resolution has caused Obama considerable – and needless – grief, and it could have blown up in his face much worse had the May 6 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina turned out differently.

By punting on Florida and Michigan since January, Obama handed his opponent a talking point that she has relentlessly flogged and used to create a moral justification for her continued campaign. She can’t quit, she has said over and over – not as long as the people of Michigan and Florida are denied their voice in this process. Without this rallying cry, her lingering presence in the race – in the face of a hopeless and widening delegate gap – would have been much tougher to defend.

This has also done damage to Obama’s own standing, forfeiting the moral high ground on the Florida-Michigan dilemma, somewhat improbably, to Clinton. By thumbing his nose at every propsective compromise since January, he’s allowed her to paint him as dismissive of voters in both states. Whether this will ultimately haunt Obama in the general election, with Florida and Michigan looming as likely electoral battlegrounds, isn’t yet clear. But right now, he performs significantly worse in Florida general election polls than Clinton does, one of the most staggering gaps in any state between his performance against John McCain and hers. And a new poll out this week shows Obama falling slightly behind McCain in Michigan. Obama needs to be making friends in these states, but his strategy this primary season has hardly advanced that imperative.

The unresolved nature of both states throughout the spring has also allowed her to play games with math. When the media began noting that Obama was nearing the magic number of 2,026 delegates, Clinton was free to fire back that the real magic number – with full delegations from Florida and Michigan included – was much higher and that Obama was nowhere near it. She and her surrogates have also taken to claiming – with straight faces – a lead in the overall popular vote, a calculation based on Michigan’s January primary, in which Clinton received 328,309 votes while Obama’s name wasn’t on the ballot.

And then there was the big risk for Obama: that Clinton might maneuver herself into a stronger political position, one that would add weight to her calls to seat both states at the convention without penalty and based on their January results. As events have played out, she has no real leverage to push that agenda at Saturday’s Rules and Bylaws session. She has more committed supporters on the panel than Obama, but the crucial swing members seem to be pursuing a pragmatic course: With Obama in mathematical control of the race, they are apparently open to a compromise that won’t impact the bottom line of the race.

But it didn’t have to turn out this way.

After he grabbed control of the race in late February, concerns within the party about Obama slowly grew, starting with his loss in Ohio on March 4. He then endured weeks of horrible press, mostly due to Jeremiah Wright and to his own “bitter” remark, followed by a sizable defeat in Pennsylvania. He still led the delegate race comfortably, but his standing in general election polling was wilting, particularly in some of the traditional swing states.

Obama dramatically arrested his slide on May 6, when he thumped Clinton in North Carolina (where polls had shown Clinton pulling close in the final days) and came within inches of catching her in Indiana (where she’d been hoping for a solid win). From that point on, the nomination – and the leverage at the upcoming Rules and Bylaws meeting – was Obama’s.

If he had in any way fallen short on May 6, panic about his prospective nomination would have spread within the party. The press would have fixated on the idea that Democrats were abandoning Obama in droves. Clinton wouldn’t have caught him in pledged delegates, but Florida and Michigan could then have become the tool for the party establishment to deny him the nomination. The same pragmatic Rules and Bylaws members now poised to enact an Obama-friendly compromise would have instead faced pressure to accede to Clinton’s demands and count the states in full. That would have cut Clinton’s delegate gap considerably and given her license to claim a popular-vote victory – which could, in turn, have provided cover for superdelegates to break in her favor.

It won’t play out that that way now, thanks to Indiana and North Carolina, and it may not have played out that way even if Obama hadn’t fared well in those two states. But he left himself exposed by leaving Florida and Michigan on the table for this entire campaign, when he could have pursued any number of compromises, including the re-vote plan that he rejected. And the fact that he set himself up as an unapologetic impediment to a solution for so long won’t help him bring his opponent’s already-resentful supporters into his camp for the general.

It was a poor and unworthy strategy. And the fact that the Obama campaign got away with it doesn’t change that.

SKornacki@observer.com

A Loser's Tactic From Obama's Winning Campaign