Secret ballot solution

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) didn’t get where she is today without her considerable, proven political savvy. And so it was no accident this week when she ruled out the laughable possibility of the “dream ticket” of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) that would drag the two bitter rivals for the Democratic nomination onto the same team.

More telling was that Pelosi, still neutral in the race, said: “I think that the Clinton administration has fairly ruled that out by proclaiming that Sen. [John] McCain [R-Ariz.] would be a better commander in chief than Obama.” (Note the Freudian slip about the Clinton administration, as if Hillary has already won or is just an extension of her husband, one or the other.)

Pelosi’s remark begs the question: Has Clinton angered undecided superdelegates by injuring her party’s front-runner, claiming John McCain’s national credentials are superior to Obama’s? Or has Clinton persuaded them with her big-state argument and the idea that national security is paramount, more important to electability than a delegate count is to the nominating process?

The job before the superdelegates is undoubtedly ghastly — to define, perhaps redefine, what winning actually means. But dreadful as the task may be, delaying resolution will make it worse. Party leaders — be they Pelosi, Al Gore, Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.), John Edwards, Bill Richardson or others if they stay silent — should act now to influence the remainder of the race rather than weighing in at its explosive end.

Why not let the voters decide? Because they won’t. Voter groups split between the two candidates show no signs of shifting to provide either one a 2,025-delegate victory. The campaigns themselves are exhausted and seething, and the war of surrogate slip-ups and conference-call combat promises to grow exponentially during the long march to Pennsylvania and beyond. Sure, Clinton will likely win in Pennsylvania and bolster her big-state platform, but Obama will share the delegates and likely remain ahead in the math. Currently he is ahead in the popular vote, even when Florida and Michigan are included. Uglier and uglier, but no end in sight.

Only the superdelegates can weigh in objectively, try to mitigate the damage already done, and determine the outcome. They should hold a secret ballot, and act on the results. If a majority are swayed by Clinton’s strength, they must begin that conversation with Obama, to tell him they can’t risk losing Ohio and similar battlegrounds in November but that they want and need his involvement in this election and those to follow. They must find a way to assuage him as the future and the hope of the party. Though Democrats couldn’t hope to keep the young voters Obama brought in, with his help they may be able to keep some black voters in November, though it would be a daunting challenge.

If the superdelegates are resigned to nominating Obama because of his delegate lead, they must make it clear to Clinton that she can’t prevail without landslide victories and must change her campaign’s tactics and rhetoric, which have prolonged the debate over race and racism and diminished Obama’s standing against McCain. A scorched-earth strategy makes the campaign against McCain harder for Clinton as well as Obama and hinders the down-ballot races for congressional seats.

Just because all of this would get leaked to the press doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. Clinton and Obama deserve to know their fate sooner rather than later. Several hundred party members will have to make that decision. With their prospects bright for winning the White House, more House seats and a possible 60-seat lock on the Senate, let’s assume a private conversation is already under way.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.