At least for a while longer.
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Towards the end of January, I called on Ms. Clinton to withdraw from the presidential race. At that point, she still had to be favored to win, but there were fundamental flaws in her candidacy, and it was clear that a Clinton victory in the primaries would hurt the Democratic party in the 2008 general election. Today, while she still has a strong chance to win the Democratic nomination, Ms. Clinton is no longer the front-runner. Her campaign has been horrendously managed, and she has been flat-out out-campaigned by Senator Barack Obama. Her hopes are now pinned on winning the three remaining big states – Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – by solid margins. And even then, she will not be able to win the nomination easily.
Now, with increasing calls on Ms. Clinton to resign, my contrarian impulse is kicking in – and my sense that Ms. Clinton’s presence in the race can provide an important opportunity. I believe it is to the Democratic party’s, and Mr. Obama’s, benefit for Ms. Clinton to stay in the race. Even more, I want a ‘Hillary’ who will unleash every possible line of attack against Mr. Obama – including “the kitchen sink” as today’s New York Times reports. I want Ms. Clinton to insinuate:
- that Mr. Obama is “a secret Muslim“;
- that people will say he was a drug dealer;
- that his church is racist;
- that he’s corrupt;
- that he’s too liberal;
- that he’s too centrist;
- that he cannot win as a black man in America;
- that’s he’s naive;
- that his supporters are insane;
- that he’s not ready to be president;
- and anything else she can think of.
I want Ms. Clinton to make every one of these arguments her own in a desperate attempt to beat back the political tide that is washing her hopes of a return to the White House away.
I would even be happy to see Ms. Clinton fight all the way to the convention – railing on about Mr. Obama’s scandals and inadequacy. The more Ms. Clinton puts her name and weight behind these stories, the less inclined the media will be to respond to them in the general election and the easier it will be for Mr. Obama to shrug them off then. If Ms. Clinton can air all the so-called “dirty laundry” before she is vanquished, it will leave Mr. Obama a stronger candidate.
Part of Mr. Obama’s appeal is the belief that he can overcome the gutter politics that distract people from the real issues at stake without engaging in gutter politics himself. As Glenn Greenwald wrote over at Salon:
[T]he question isn’t whether Obama will be relentlessly pelted by the sprawling appendages of the Right-wing edifice and its media allies with the most grotesque, bottom-feeding, substance-free, personality-based attacks. Of course he will be – ones as ugly as, if not uglier than, anything we’ve seen yet.
Up until now, Obama has received relatively sympathetic treatment from the two-headed right-wing/media monster because he’s been the anti-Hillary, and hatred for her resulted in affection (or at least restraint) towards him. Once he’s no longer the anti-Hillary, but instead becomes the only thing standing between John McCain/GOP power and the White House, he’s going to be the target of all of that bile and much, much more. As the Right begins to believe that he very well might be the enemy this Fall, and they thus pressure the media to begin its attacks, this week one got a small glimpse – a tiny fraction – of what is to come. So the question can’t be whether the Right and the media will behave differently. They can’t and won’t.
The real question is whether Obama, as he did this week, will be able to render these attacks impotent, even cause them to backfire, because they and their propagators will appear to be so ugly and small and irrelevant in light of the type of candidate he is, the rhetoric he produces, the vision to which he aspires. I have no idea whether Obama’s transcendent charisma or the historically demonstrated efficacy of low-life right-wing attacks will be more potent – I think it’s a much more difficult challenge than many Obama supporters (by virtue of understandable desire, rather than objective assessment) have convinced themselves it will be — but there probably aren’t very many priorities more important than cleansing our political process of this type of dirt and petty distraction.
There’s a fine line between playing “hard” and playing “dirty” – but it is essential to stay on the fair side of that line. Mr. Obama realizes that; the Clintons forgot it long ago.
I don’t mean to count Ms. Clinton out – she still has a chance to win the primary, and a slimmer chance to win the general election after that. But the best service she can do to her party now is to play the villain – to refuse to exit the race with the grace and honor, but instead to fight dirty until the “last dog dies.”
I have no love for Ms. Clinton – but no abiding ill will either. If Ms. Clinton wants to help her party win the White House this November, she can give Mr. Obama the “vetting” she claims he lacks, and with ever increasing histrionics, throw every smear, every false allegation, every innuendo at him. She can make her name synonymous with the sleaze she throws at him; she has proven that she is capable of a viciousness reminiscent of a Karl Rove. And by playing the villain, she can discredit and de-fang the many attacks that are sure to come at Mr. Obama after he secures the nomination.
This will allow Mr. Obama to unite the Democratic party, to rally independents to his side, and to gain the grudging respect of the conservative Hillary-haters.
So, Ms. Clinton – please stay in the race. At least until July.
a committed liberal, Democrat, and Barack Obama supporter