Hillary Hatches a Win

A Clinton win in Nevada ends on an ugly note.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton has won the Nevada caucus, which means a few things about the Democratic race are now coming into focus. For example, mark on your calendar Jan. 25 for an outburst by Bill Clinton somewhere in South Carolina. He has launched a tirade the day before each of his wife’s victories in Nevada and New Hampshire, claiming the process was unfairly stacked against her. If this keeps up, he’s going to require a stretcher by the last primary in Oregon come May.

Bill Clinton was so angry because it got ugly at the end in Nevada. Democrats may have cooled down their flash war over race and gender earlier this week, but by the time the vote took place Saturday, each of the two top campaigns was flinging some very ugly charges about the other. Bill Clinton accused the powerful Nevada culinary union of suppressing voters, claiming he’d witnessed it first hand. Obama’s campaign manager in turn threw out some very charged coded language about efforts by the Clinton campaign to suppress the vote. “It is a sad day when Democrats start trying to suppress the vote of other Democrats,” he said of push polls, robo-calls, and what he called “old-style say anything or do anything to win” Clinton politics.

Commence the hand-wringing. How do you put a party back together when Obama claims that Clinton wins only by winning ugly? Historically, political parties find ways to put themselves back together, but Clinton risks looking like a hope killer if Obama’s charges that she’s succeeded unfairly start to stick. In addition to charges by Obama aides, the candidate himself was accusing Clinton of distorting his record and saying anything to get elected in the final hours of campaigning. Clinton’s negatives are already high enough. This prospect of Clinton commanding a party stitched together like Frankenstein may at some point cause people to resist supporting her even if their doubts about Obama increase.

Obama’s team tempered the loss by arguing that he won delegates to the state convention (13 to 12) over Clinton by the complicated rules of apportionment that gave him credit for doing well across the state rather than in concentrated areas. The Obama team further hopes that the dirty-tricks accusation will soften the blow of the loss. He’s also lucky that the next primary is in South Carolina. African-American voters, who make up a huge voting bloc in the state, are already strongly supporting him. They will no doubt find additional motivation in these latest complaints. Democratic strategists have long argued that there’s no better way to ensure turnout of the black vote than if there’s a hint that someone is trying to suppress their participation.

The structural problem for Obama is that losing the popular vote matters more to his message than it might to any mere garden-variety candidate. Whether campaigns are an accurate test of how candidates will perform in the White House is a debatable proposition, but Barack Obama asks us to judge him specifically on his ability to win elections. He promises to stir people and the country to epochal change by rallying an army for change, which means that for him, every election is a chance to show he can actually perform this trick by bringing voters to the polls. Each time he can’t, he undermines the central rationale of his pitch.

Whatever comes of the tit for tat over dirty voter tricks, the Nevada caucus brought some interesting new contours to the debate over judgment and experience that has dominated the rhetoric among the top candidates. In a back-and-forth set of exchanges over several days, Clinton and Obama debated their management styles. Obama was not a detail guy, he said; he would focus on his vision for motivating the country the same way Ronald Reagan did. Clinton said vision was important but that she would be a hands-on president.

In the Las Vegas debate, Obama defended the idea that the president’s job is to inspire, not oversee. That’s the skill he thinks he brings. Clinton at the same debate made the argument for—and showed—competence, determination, and policy skills. After eight years of a president who lacked the verbal skills to lift the country and whose management skills were lacking, the voters have to make a choice about which of the two the country needs.

In reality, both would run their White Houses in similar ways. When Hillary Clinton talks about creating an energy program that’s like the Apollo mission, she’s promising a national mission of the kind Obama talks about. When Obama talks about the need for incremental change, he shows an appreciation for the nuts and bolts of implementing his big vision. What was interesting in Nevada, though, was that neither wanted to admit these similarities. They both embraced the visionary-vs.-hands-on, inspiration-vs.-perspiration divide in its widest form.

In Nevada, the conversation turned ever more to the economy, which appears to favor Clinton as the conversation turns to issues on which voters might be looking for a more specific set of policy fixes. That favors her pitch. (You can’t pay the rent with hope.) Clinton won all income groups in Nevada, according to entrance polls, but she did best among lower-income voters as she did in New Hampshire—the people who might like inspiration but feel like they’re falling behind and want a candidate who will fight for them in very specific ways. In a dramatic new development for Clinton, she also did extremely well among those earning more than $100,000 a year, a group that had turned out for Obama in New Hampshire and Iowa.

John Edwards had a dismal performance, coming in with less than 5 percent of the vote. He is also a distant third in South Carolina, despite having carried it in 2004. He says he’s going to stay in the race until the end, but the only likely role for him now is kingmaker.

The last time things got ugly and overheated in the Democratic race, the three top candidates held a group therapy session at the Nevada debate. They have another chance Monday to come together for a debate in South Carolina. We’ll see if 48 hours is enough time for tempers to cool.