Now It Gets Dangerous for Democrats

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by
The Nation

Now It Gets Dangerous for Democrats

by
John Nichols

Here is what conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh said about the prospect of a continuing contest for the Democratic presidential nomination on the eve of the Ohio primary and the Texas primacaucuses that have - with "good enough" finishes for Hillary Clinton -- assured the race will go on:

"We need Barack Obama bloodied up politically."

Limbaugh explained to fellow right-wing gabber Laura Ingraham - yes, they are now interviewing each other -- that Obama has gotten this far in his race for the presidency with most of his popular appeal intact. As such, he would be hard to beat as the Democratic nominee in a race with Republican John McCain.

"I want our party to win. I want the Democrats to lose. They're in the midst of tearing themselves apart right now. It's fascinating to watch, and it's all going to stop if Hillary loses," Limbaugh argued, as he suggested that Republicans in primary states should cross party lines to vote for Clinton.

Only by keeping Clinton in the race, Limbaugh explained, will it be possible to "sustain the soap opera" that might ultimately diminish Obama sufficiently to secure an undeserved Republican win in November. Well, the soap opera has been sustained.

With her big Ohio and Rhode Island wins and a narrow victory in Texas, Clinton can do more than just carry on. She can say, credibly, that, "We're going strong and we're going all the way."

Tuesday night belonged to Clinton, and she owned it.

As Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" played, the senator claimed the victory she needed with the line: "Ohio has written a new chapter in the history of this campaign, and we're just getting started."

What is getting started is an edgier, rougher Democratic presidential race.

And don't think that the New York senator will pull any punches.

If the Clinton campaign has learned anything from the two-week campaign that preceded the Ohio and Texas votes, it is that Hillary Clinton will not win unless Barack Obama loses. The senator from Illinois must be damaged, badly, or so the theory goes, in order for the senator from New York to grab the Democratic nomination from his clutches.

Make no mistake: The candidate and her Clintonistas have sought to inflict that damage.

This campaign moves so fast that it is easy to forget everything that happens in a two-week timespan. But, since Clinton lost Wisconsin's February 19 primary, the hits really have kept coming. There was "Barack stole lines from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick" hit. There was the "Barack stole a page from Karl Rove when he sent out negative mailings" hit. There was the "Barack dresses like a Muslim" hit. There was the "Barack's campaign told the Canadians one thing about trade and Ohio another thing" hit. There was the "Barack's not the guy you want answering the phone in the White House" hit. There was even the "Barack's defiling the memory of Ann Richards because she would have wanted Hillary to have a clean shot at the nomination" hit. And always, always, always, there was the steady drumbeat from candidate Clinton that: ""I have a lifetime of experience I will bring to the White House. I know Senator McCain has a lifetime of experience he will bring to the White House. And Senator Obama has a speech (against authorizing President Bush to attack Iraq) he made in 2002."

Now, the strategy has been sufficiently-if-not-completely validated.

So Clinton will go on, and chances are that she will go on rough. Will it be enough to secure her the nomination? Clinton and her aides think so. Their calculus goes like this: Obama is really just another Democratic presidential "flash-in-the-pan" who started strong but will ultimately wear thin- like Gary Hart in 1984, like Paul Tsongas in 1992, like Howard Dean in 2004 - and Clinton can slowly but surely take advantage of uncertainty about Obama until she "closes the deal" at a convention where she arrives with momentum from late primaries and caucuses, maybe even revote victories from Michigan and Florida, and a clear advantage among super delegates.

The scenario is not a likely one. More likely is a repeat 1972, when South Dakota Senator George McGovern seemed to have the nomination secured by early spring but former Vice President Hubert Humphrey's campaign kept "raising doubts" about McGovern to the very end. The Humphrey campaign and its allies pulled no punches. They suggested, with none-too-subtle encouragement from incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon's surrogates, that a McGovern candidacy - and, presumably, a McGovern presidency -- would be all about "acid, abortion and amnesty": legalizing drugs, attacking moral values and forgiving military deserters.

Democrats did not buy it; they gave McGovern more primary wins and the nomination. But McGovern and his campaign were done severe damage. A World War II hero with a stellar Senate record on serious issues like providing food aid to the world - so stellar that Bob Dole and George Bush would ultimately celebrate his work in this particular area -- was redefined as what Republicans and their amen corner in the media now refer to as a "McGovernite."

Clinton's campaign has been given a new lease on life.

It will continue.

But she and her supporters - as well as Democrats who may still be undecided about this contest -- need to think long and hard about the kind of campaign will now run against Barack Obama. If the Clinton camp runs the right campaign on legitimate issues, and if it does so with dignity, they will not harm Democratic prospects in November - no matter who the nominee turns out to be. On the other hand, if they run wrong, and seek to destroy Obama by any means necessary, they could be responsible for two defeats: Clinton's for the nomination and Obama's for the presidency in November.

Those are the stakes as the long campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination now enters its most dangerous stage.

John Nichols' new book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Copyright © 2008 The Nation

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