By A. B. Stoddard - 04/09/08 11:23 AM EDT
Political geniuses are geniuses until one day they are no longer. Just like inevitable candidates are inevitable until one day they are not.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) can win Pennsylvania by a large margin, win more states and even the popular vote. Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) candidacy could suffer total collapse and propel Clinton to the nomination and the White House. But the Clinton world is visibly pondering — and likely plotting for — defeat.
The sudden burst of on-the-record comments from allies — and, yes, employees — makes it clear: Clinton herself hears singing in the hills, and she knows it could be the Fat Lady. Her friends are laying down the marker; she needs to win the popular vote to even have a case to the superdelegates. And they are also now insisting party unity will be preserved. The clock is ticking, and before the window closes Hillary must plan for rehabilitation and reconciliation after a poorly managed campaign and a bitter fight that has nearly broken the Clinton brand.
Pollster Geoff Garin, who replaced Mark Penn this week, said he doesn't “want there to be a thermonuclear climax,” hardly the comments of a general readying for an epic five-month battle to the convention floor. And in emphatic statements about party unity, Garin made it clear that Clinton won't prolong the inevitable. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), a Clinton ally who stayed neutral despite hailing from Obama's home state, told Newsweek magazine, “I have a sneaking suspicion it's over after North Carolina and Indiana [on May 6]. It will be clear by then who the presumptive nominee is.” Emanuel, who possesses the keenest of political minds, knows if Hillary were to win Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana, nothing would be clear.
As the doubt has spread past the media and into her own circle, Clinton's demeanor has changed. She seems contemplative, subdued and stoic, less the dogged fighter we saw just weeks ago. Hearing testimony from Gen. David Petraeus this week, Clinton was the studious legislator again, not a struggling underdog grasping for the spotlight.
Perhaps underestimating Obama for so long has humbled her, but Clinton remains a fiercely smart and shrewd politician with a future to plan. Miracles can happen, but Clinton knows she must now begin, at least privately, trying on the role of loser. It will be a wrenching challenge that calls upon the same acting ability her marriage demanded of her years ago — there will be loads of fake smiles, likely a speaking role at the convention and the proverbial hug between former rivals.
Unless the Clintons want to leave public life and hide out in Tuscany, she will have to oblige the party. Both of them know what we do: People feel more negatively about Bill Clinton than they have at any other time, including impeachment, and Hillary's favorable ratings have plunged to their lowest level since she first took office. Team Clinton now begs for silence from superdelegates who once would have likely chosen Hillary over Obama. There is a subtext: This is not the Clintons’ Democratic Party anymore. Party insiders are weighing not only the strength of two candidates but also the future of the party and the prospect of purging the Clintons once and for all. Returning to the Senate, Clinton will face colleagues who supported Obama or stayed neutral. And then there is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was taken to task by Clinton fundraisers — clearly with Clinton's permission — for stating that the party would have to nominate the winner of the pledged delegates.
Still clinging to the hope and possibility they won't have to, the Clintons are now planning how best to shape the post-postmortems and the next chapter. If they are not, then this rough-and-tumble campaign has shaken the Clinton right out of them.
Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.