This past week, Vermont senator Patrick Leahy joined a growing chorus of politicians, pundits, bloggers, and Barack Obama supporters urging Hillary Clinton — trailing by a little more than 100 delegates with a number of contests still to go — to quit the Democratic race in the interests of party unity.
It is, in truth, an argument virtually without precedent in modern political history, at least at this stage of such a close race. And while it does have its origins in an effort to preserve party unity, it also has its roots in an odd and vitriolic crusade to purge the Clintons and hand the nomination to a candidate who has yet, after all, to win a single large state’s primary (other than his own), let alone the nomination.
The fact is that, until now, candidates have rarely, if ever, faced such a concerted movement (featuring prominent names, such as Bill Richardson, and a column in Slate titled “The Hillary Deathwatch”), urging them to drop out before their rival has clinched the nomination. To review the history:
• In 1988, Jesse Jackson took his hopeless campaign against winner Michael Dukakis all the way to the convention, often to great media praise.
• In 1980, Ted Kennedy carried his run against Jimmy Carter all the way to the convention, even though it was clear he had been routed.
• In 1976, Ronald Reagan contested the “inevitability” of Gerald Ford all the way to the convention. Few, then or since, have ever thought to criticize Reagan’s failure to step aside and let Ford assume the mantle.
• Also in 1976, three candidates — Mo Udall, Jerry Brown, and Frank Church — ran against Jimmy Carter all the way through the final primaries, even though Carter seemed more than likely to be the eventual nominee.
• Even in 1960, Lyndon Johnson and Adlai Stevenson fought the “certain” nomination of John F. Kennedy all the way to the convention floor.
In fact, until this year, it’s been an axiom of American politics that candidates are allowed to pursue their runs until they decide to drop out — which is usually, by the way, when they run out of money. Even Mike Huckabee kept running against John McCain in this campaign long after it was obvious he had no hope of winning the GOP nod.
Yet in one of the tightest races in modern history — before the opponent has come close to clearly clinching the nomination, before a number of voters have been given the chance to have their voices heard, and when Clinton still has a chance, albeit a slim one, to win the prize, she is continually vilified for failing to see the light and bow out. What gives?
Part of it is undoubtedly that there’s concern among Democrats that this protracted race is hurting the party’s prospects for the fall. But the truth is that if Clinton were to drop out tomorrow, Obama would still have the same liabilities he has today — they’d only emerge later.
Another part of it is driven by the fact that the superdelegates would much rather avoid their difficult choice between Obama and Clinton. Politicians generally like to compromise, and there’s no avoiding a very tough choice in this case. Unless, of course, Clinton drops out and takes them off the hook.