Clinton campaign’s dying light

Jonathan Chait, a contributing editor to Opinion and a senior editor at the New Republic, is the author of "The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics."

‘Do not go gentle into that good night. ...

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

When Dylan Thomas wrote those lines in 1951, he did not intend them as political advice. But if he were alive today, he’d surely admire Hillary Clinton’s campaigning style. (And probably vote for her: At 93, he’d be right inside her demographic sweet spot.) As the end approaches, she has not gone gentle into that good night.

Clinton has almost no chance of winning the nomination. Going into today’s big votes in Texas and Ohio, she trails by more than 150 pledged delegates.

If she has an unexpectedly great day, she might gain by a couple dozen, but her best chances to gain ground will all be behind her. She could, in theory, win the nomination with superdelegates if she could narrow the gap, but that’s not going to happen. Barack Obama will bring a triple-digit delegate lead to the convention, and party elites won’t dare overturn that.


Clinton and her supporters rage on anyway because, for so long, they had no inkling she might lose. For Obama to take what is rightfully hers must be unfair. The Clintonites rage against the media (though they didn’t mind when reporters parroted her claims of inevitability a year ago), the unrepresentative caucus system (though they have expressed no objection to totally undemocratic superdelegates) or sexism (while ignoring the benefits of white racial bias and female gender solidarity). The real reason Clinton will lose is more prosaic: Obama is a far better politician.

Republicans have long had a kind of black-magic fear of the Clintons’ political potency. From the right’s perspective, Bill Clinton won the presidency at a time when the GOP thought it had an electoral college lock. Then he beat back the Republican revolution and the party’s efforts to defeat him.

The reality is less dramatic. Bill Clinton defeated a recession-weakened president with some help from a third-party spoiler, stopped the GOP from cutting highly popular social programs, won reelection during an economic boom and rallied his own party to thwart a wildly partisan impeachment crusade. None of these triumphs required unusual political skill.

Hillary Clinton has tried to piggyback on her husband’s ferocious reputation, boasting that she “beat the Republican attack machine.” Of course, if anybody beat the Republican attack machine, it was Bill. Hillary Clinton wasn’t on any ballot in the 1990s. True, her reputation was at stake, but that’s a fight she lost: She ended that decade a highly unpopular figure. She remains one today, with about half of the public persistently telling pollsters they have an unfavorable view of her.

Nor was Clinton able to shed her baggage when she moved to New York. In her November 2000 Senate race, she ran five points behind Democratic ticket-topper Al Gore in New York, and Gore himself was hardly a beloved figure at the time. Six years later, she pummeled a token opponent.

Has Clinton been unfairly attacked? Without a doubt. But she’s also a mediocre orator who delivers themeless and not-terribly-inspiring speeches. She’s a good enough politician to get elected in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, but not good enough to get elected president.

To be sure, she could have won the nomination under the right circumstances, what with her reservoir of goodwill from the 1990s and multitude of political and fundraising contacts. Alas, she had the bad fortune to go up against Obama.

Clinton and her supporters gripe about Obama’s charms -- the packed stadiums, the witty comebacks, the starry-eyed fans. Well, yes. It isn’t cheating. This is what you get when you’re an extremely good politician.

Obama has plenty of detailed plans and policy expertise. Yes, Clinton has a bit more. If the only criteria for the presidency were experience and legislative accomplishment, Obama wouldn’t be the nominee. But neither would Clinton. Consider poor Joe Biden, with his decades in the Senate and exhaustive foreign policy expertise. He wanted to be president too. If it was Biden versus Clinton, he’d be making the same arguments against her that she’s making against Obama.

Biden decided to go gentle into that good night. It’s time for Clinton to do the same.