After Pennsylvania

Increasingly obsessed with political gamesmanship, the presidential candidates must confront reality
By EDITORIAL  |  April 23, 2008


Hillary Clinton’s 10-point win in Pennsylvania means the Democratic battle for the presidential nomination will continue. There is no end in site. The likelihood is that the race will go on until the final votes are cast in June in Montana, New Mexico, and South Dakota — the last primaries. Even then, there is little reason to believe that Clinton will quit the field until August, when the party gathers in Denver for its convention.

If that is the case, the nomination will not be settled until after a bloodcurdling floor fight over seating delegates from Florida and Michigan, two states that lost their convention presence because they defied party rules and held their primaries earlier than allowed.

The math still favors Barack Obama. He leads in popular votes (49.2 percent to 47.5 percent, excluding Florida and Michigan) and in the delegate count (1713 to 1586, with 2024 needed to win). But Clinton is reminding the nation that she, like her husband, is a force of nature. The Clintons perform best in punishing adversity.

She is fixed on two horizons: the August nomination and, if she fails to win that, the 2012 White House race. Successful presidential-grade politicians have to be skilled at talking out of both sides of their mouths. John McCain, the putative Republican nominee, has the gift. So does Obama, who compounds it with eloquence. But Clinton has the gift in spades. Her belief in herself is complete; her intensity, if not deadly, is wounding — as Obama found out in Texas, Ohio, and now Pennsylvania.

Clinton has promised to support Obama vigorously if he wins, but campaigns by saying he cannot and should not. Clinton takes this one step further by contending at regular intervals that, in terms of stature, only she is in the same league as McCain. It is a remarkable strategy. The unwritten rules of party politics hold that the charge of unsuitability be leveled at only the candidate of the opposing party; Clinton, again like her husband, writes her own rules. This repels some as it attracts others. It is the key to understanding her two-tiered strategy: if not now, then later.

For all its drama, bile, and episodes of silliness — the wrestling moment shared by McCain, Obama, and Clinton being perhaps the most comically degrading (so far) — the campaign is curiously divorced from reality. The three candidates are working inside a bubble, a televised womb. On the campaign trail, their reality is what the late George W.S. Trow called “the context of no context.”

As the campaign grinds on, the ground is shifting under America’s feet. As a nation, however, we take no notice. Historically insulated and perpetually self-absorbed, the United States exists in a comatose state; saddled with personal, corporate, and government debt; addicted to a level of consumption that can be slaked only with more of the same. To recognize this state of affairs is considered political suicide. And since all of the candidates are realists, they join their fellow Americans and bury their heads in the shifting sand. If the voters will not recognize that the rules and forces that for so long determined the fate of the rest of the world increasingly apply to us, why should McCain, Obama, and Clinton?

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