Pawns And Brokers

Well, is there a better show around right now than the Democratic race for the presidential nomination? (Well, now that “Eliot Spitzer’s Ho-Down” has been canceled.) The fighting between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is the stuff of which legends are made.

I’m not certain, but I believe that each candidate has enough delegates (between elected and designated, or “super,” delegates) to deny the other a first-ballot victory. Which means that it will, if nothing changes, it’s going to be a brokered convention.

The first solution that comes to mind is if one of the two leaders voluntarily steps aside “for the good of the party.” That ain’t likely to happen at all.

The Clintons, to the best of my knowledge, have NEVER made any kind of sacrifice “for the good of the party.” To them, loyalty is a one-way street — it’s what they are owed, but owe no one in return. Further, I am convinced that, in her heart of hearts, Hillary Clinton believes that she is “owed” the presidency for her years of standing by (and putting up with) Bill Clinton, helping him win and keep the presidency. It’s her turn, dammit, and no one is going to keep her from getting what’s hers.

Barack Obama is equally unlikely to take a dive. He’s seen — as have the rest of us — how loyalty to the Clintons is repaid. (Just ask Al Gore, who stood by Bill all during his impeachment.) He knows the old saying quite well — “when you strike against a king, be sure to kill him.” He knows that should Hillary win, she will not be a gracious victor and forgive his effrontery in challenging her. Even more egregious, doing so so successfully.

Most importantly, he’s winning. Why should he give up while he’s ahead?

So it’s going to take something really spectacular to head off a brokered convention.

Which is precisely why Hillary — through her various pawns — is trying to engineer something really spectacular.

Numerous times throughout our political history, we have seen presidential candidates self-destruct in public. George Romney announced that he had been “brainwashed” during his visit to Viet Nam, and was now opposed to the war. Romney meant, I believe, that his brain had been washed of the lies and deceptions of the Johnson administration, but his misuse of the term pretty much destroyed his chances for election.

In 1972, Ed Muskie was under relentless attack by the Union Leader of Manchester, New Hampshire. After one particularly scurrilous and contemptible attack against his wife, Muskie rented a flatbed truck and parked it across the street from the paper’s downtown offices and harangued its publisher, William Loeb. It happened to be snowing, and Muskie got a smidgen emotional, so it appeared to many that he broke into tears at one point. Whether it was tears or melting snow running down his face, the perception was that he had acted “unmanly” and he was done.

In 1980, Ted Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. In a televised debate, Roger Mudd put the nail in Teddy’s presidential ambitions with what should have been a softball question: “why do you want to be president?” Apparently no one had ever asked Teddy that one, because he so utterly flubbed it that he was done for.

In 1987, Gary Hart was dogged by rumors of rampant infidelity. He challenged reporters to “follow me” and see that he wasn’t doing anything wrong. They did, he was, and he was done for.

In 1992, Ross Perot achieved a feat that can only be considered legendary in the annals of politics: he self-destructed repeatedly. First, he irritated a whole bunch of blacks at an NAACP convention by talking about how “you people” are the first ones hurt in an economic slowdown — a fine sentiment, utterly destroyed by the insensitive term. So he quit.

Then he got back in, saying that he’d quit before because “Republican operatives” were going to embarrass his daughter by releasing compromising photos of her just before her wedding.

Then he blew it again when he talked about how he and his security detail had thwarted a six-man “Cuban hit squad” that invaded his estate to assassinate him. So he was gone once more — until 1996.

And I’m sure we all remember Howard Dean’s “I Have A Scream” moment in 2004.

So, that’s pretty much the only thing that can spare the Democrats a brokered convention, when no candidate wins a majority of delegates’ votes on the first ballot, and they are all released to vote for whomever they wish. And Hillary knows it.

That is what I think is driving the almost-kamikaze-like tactics out of the Clinton camp. More and more staffers and backers — some at the highest levels — are launching attacks against Obama that, in the end, cost them their positions and relevance to the Clinton campaign, but they keep trying it.

National Co-Chairman Bill Shaheen (from here in New Hampshire, husband of Jeanne Shaheen, former governor and current Senate candidate) had to resign after he said that Republicans would play Obama’s admission of youthful drug use into accusations of drug-dealing. Down goes Bill.

Former Senator (and longtime Clinton backer) Bob Kerrey commented that Obama might be a “Muslim Manchurian Candidate.” Kerrey goes down in flames.

Now Geraldine Ferraro tries to play the race card, but in a spectacularly (but for her, predictably) clumsy fashion. This would-be attack crashes and burns on takeoff.

The goal, as I see it, is to provoke Obama into some kind of response that would show him to be un-presidential. A flash of temper, a rash counterattack, even an unguarded, profane moment would give Hillary the leverage she thinks she needs to bring him down.

Obama, so far, is reacting perfectly to these attacks. That is, not at all. There was a brief moment when one of his staffers called Hillary “monstrous,” and was promptly fired. (I suspect for “revealing secrets” as much as “embarrassing the candidate.”)

He is also smart enough to know that he can play the same game, too — drive Hillary into making some huge gaffe, some massive mistake that can turn her campaign into a smoking ruin. And he knows that the best tactic to provoke her into doing that is to keep doing what he’s been doing — shrugging off her attacks and continually beat her in state after state after state.

This primary could prove expensive for me. After all, popcorn might be cheap, but it ain’t that cheap.

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