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Party leaders swinging to Obama despite a Clinton win

Democratic Party leaders and superdelegates were breaking for Barack Obama this week, calling him the party

What happenedDemocratic Party leaders and superdelegates were breaking for Barack Obama this week, calling him the party’s presumptive nominee despite Hillary Clinton’s landslide victory in the West Virginia primary. Clinton won the contest by a two-to-one margin on the strength of support from the rural state’s white, working-class voters. But it appeared to be too little, too late. Obama picked up 30 new superdelegates in the past week, including former party chairman Roy Romer and elder statesman George McGovern, who switched his allegiance from Clinton. Obama now leads Clinton in superdelegates, as well as in pledged delegates and the popular vote. “The math is controlling,” Romer said. He said it was “time for the party to unify… and begin the general election.”

Visibly buoyed by her big win in West Virginia, Clinton vowed to fight on. “I am more determined than ever to carry on this campaign,” she told cheering supporters. Obama, meanwhile, turned his attention to Republican John McCain and the general election. “There is a lot of talk these days about how the Democratic Party is divided,” the Illinois senator said. “I know that we’ll be able to come together quickly behind a common purpose.”

What the editorials said“The long co-dependency is over,” said The Wall Street Journal. For 16 years, Democrats indulged Bill and Hillary Clinton’s slippery politicking, loose ethics, and ideological triangulation because they wanted to win. But with the rise of Obama, “something more than a return to the trench warfare of the 1990s seemed possible.” Hillary might not be ready to face the music, but her party is already dancing with a new partner.

Clinton has every right to keep fighting, said The New York Times. What matters is how she does it. Her victory in West Virginia came after a round of “negative campaigning with disturbing racial undertones.” To the dismay of many Democratic Party leaders, she said Obama couldn’t get the support of “hardworking Americans, white Americans.” That kind of divisive rhetoric is beneath a serious candidate. If she can’t find her way back to the high road, “Clinton’s reputation will suffer more harm than it already has.”

What the columnists saidClinton doesn’t only have a right to stay in the race, said Ellen R. Malcolm in The Washington Post. She has a responsibility to do so. Women of Clinton’s generation were too often told that when the competition got tough, they should “curtsy and exit stage right.” Clinton didn’t get to be the hero of working-class women by quitting just because the men in charge said she must.

The big question now is, “What does Hillary want?” said Michael Tackett in the Chicago Tribune. If the New York senator earnestly campaigns for Obama in the fall, she could help him “with her newfound friends, those working-class white guys swilling Budweiser,” as well as with the millions of women “who sustained her candidacy and very nearly delivered her the nomination.” No one knows yet what she’s seeking from Obama and Democratic Party leaders, but she has “a remarkable amount of leverage,” and you can be sure that they’ll have to consider giving her what she wants.

Obama, meanwhile, should be worried, said Maureen Dowd in The New York Times. Exit polls showed that race played a major role in West Virginia, and journalists and Obama volunteers reported hearing a slew of subtle and overt racist language. If Obama wants to change West Virginians’ attitudes, he “should study how JFK managed to win there despite raging anti-Catholicism.” It will require a lot of groundwork, a lot of charm, and a lot of payouts to influential local politicians.

What next?There are five more primaries and caucuses before June 4. Clinton is favored in two, Obama in three. But the most decisive event could be a meeting in late May of the Democrats’ Rules and Bylaws Committee, which will decide what to do about Florida’s and Michigan’s delegates, who have not been counted because those states defied party rules. Half the committee members are Clinton supporters, said Jonathan Alter in Newsweek, and they might insist on opening the question to the entire convention in August. “That doesn’t guarantee a floor fight, but the threat of one gives Hillary a weapon to use both in private and public.”

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