Picking Up the Bill

What Richardson’s endorsement means for Obama.

Barack Obama and Bill Richardson

As a presidential candidate, Bill Richardson often seemed to be off by one beat. He was never as natural in debates or interviews as he was in person. At one debate, Barack Obama had to rescue him when he wasn’t paying attention. As Richardson told the Washington Post’s Jose Antonio Vargas, when he got lost and didn’t hear the topic he was supposed to address, Obama whispered, “Katrina.” The cue jump-started Richardson’s talking points.

Richardson has now repaid the kindness by endorsing Obama. In this case, his timing couldn’t have been better. The nod was the high note in an otherwise bad week for Obama, in which his poll numbers dropped and he continued to suffer the fallout from remarks by his longtime pastor, in spite of the candidate’s efforts to address it head-on in a big speech on race in America that was well-received, according to polls. Richardson’s biggest assist, though, was that he took sides in a stalled Democratic Party argument over delegates. In the numbers vs. narrative debate, the New Mexico governor backed the view that because Obama has an insurmountable numerical lead among pledged delegates, the nomination has effectively been decided. There is no story Clinton can tell to convince superdelegates to reverse that mathematical fact, in his view. “My great affection and admiration for Hillary Clinton and President Bill Clinton will never waver. It is time, however, for Democrats to stop fighting amongst ourselves and to prepare for the tough fight we will face against John McCain in the fall.”

Endorsements get more attention than they deserve; still, Richardson served in two top posts in the Clinton administration, and both Clintons have courted him heavily. His move matches that of John Lewis, the Georgia congressman who dropped his support for Clinton to back Obama. Richardson’s decision was “as close to a defection as they come,” says Joe Trippi. Edwards’ former strategist argues that the superdelegates to watch in the coming drama may not be the undecided ones but the ones already pledged to Clinton. They may decide to confront her at some point—perhaps if Obama wins the North Carolina primary in early May—arguing that to continue to fight for a nomination when the math is against her will wreck the party and ruin her reputation.

The Clinton campaign responded to the endorsement as Dick Cheney might: So? Chief strategist Mark Penn said that “the time that [Richardson] could have been effective has long since passed. I don’t think it is a significant endorsement in this environment.” How can Penn say this given the 423 words I’ve just written? Simple: Penn would like to take us to a different environment (one in which, for example, we ignore that Bill and Hillary Clinton were calling Richardson eight days ago to secure his endorsement).

Here’s how Penn would like us to see things: Despite Obama’s pledged-delegate lead, Clinton can make a case to superdelegates that she has a clearer path to the presidency based on a number of factors. The list of proffered advantages is long: Clinton is a better nominee because she has won big states, more primaries that are better reflections of Democratic sentiment, and certain swing states that are more swingy than the ones Obama won. Also, she may win the popular vote (if you count the right way), and she performs better against John McCain than Obama (if you read the right polls). For some of this, you have to squint or hold your breath, and there are contradictions here. When making the case that Clinton might have more popular votes than Obama, Clinton aides want every vote to be counted, including those from the bastard contests in Florida and Michigan. But when making the case that Clinton is the choice of true-blue Democrats, Clinton partisans ask the superdelegates to look only at how Clinton performed among Democrats who participated in the primaries and caucuses rather than the total number of Democrats, independents, and Republicans who voted in them.

There’s nothing wrong with making these arguments, and by the party’s rules, it’s perfectly legal for Clinton to reverse Obama’s pledged-delegate lead with superdelegates. But in listening over the weeks to Clinton’s advisers make their superdelegate case, you can feel the criteria changing as the conversation ensues. I am reminded of the movie Stripes. John Candy, playing a new Army recruit *, hoodwinks another member of his troop. “You gotta make my bunk,” he says earnestly. “See, we’re in Italy. The guy on the top bunk has gotta make the guy on the bottom’s bunk. He’s gotta make his bunk all the time. See, it’s in the regulations. See, if we were in Germany, I would have to make yours, but we’re in Italy, and you gotta make mine. It’s regulations.”

This whiff of hokum is one problem. The second problem for the Clinton pitch is that even if superdelegates buy it, no one on the Clinton team can explain why Obama’s coalition of African-Americans, liberals, and first-time voters is going to buy it. In a recent CBS News poll, 92 percent of Obama supporters said they would feel disappointed and angry if Clinton won by superdelegates. When I asked Mark Penn how he would soothe these hurt feelings, he had no real answer other than hope: Democrats have come together before.

And yet Clinton must not be dead, because the Obama campaign is fighting like hell to bury her. This week it unleashed the harshest string of attacks yet aimed at Clinton’s character, a risky move since Obama keeps reasserting how high-minded he wants his campaign to be. On a conference call with reporters Friday, top Obama aides said Clinton had a “history of deceiving voters” and laid out multiple claims suggesting she was untrustworthy and has sought to deceive the country.

Why take this risk? The answer is that Obama aides are not as certain superdelegates will come their way as some columnists are. And so they are trying to neutralize Clinton’s best weapon against Obama, which is that he cannot win the general election. Attacking her character and truthfulness (with the aid of photos) both undermines her claims against Obama and raises doubts about her own ability to beat John McCain. “It will be next to impossible to win a general election if half of the electorate does not think you’re trustworthy,” Obama manager David Plouffe says, lest anyone miss the point his campaign is making.

The Democratic race is like a CD stuck on a scratch, just waiting for the superdelegates to give it a kick and put it back on track. Bill Richardson took his shot. Now Obama has to hope that the other superdelegates hear the music and join in.

Correction, March 22, 2008: The article originally and incorrectly said that the branch of the military being spoofed in the movie Stripes was the Marines. The correct branch is the Army. (Return to the corrected sentence.)