Lady, You’re in My Way

Can Obama do anything to get Clinton out of the race?

John Dickerson chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

The race for the Democratic nomination—”race” is hardly the right word, is it?—now feels like a quantum physics problem: How long can a body exist in a state approximating motionlessness without actually stopping? Tuesday night, Barack Obama took the majority of delegates selected through primaries and caucuses, meaning that a race that was already all but over is now a little more so. Superdelegates are not likely to deny him the nomination by reversing the pledged delegates. They have been moving steadily in his direction despite recent losses. Obama needs to win fewer than 30 percent of the remaining delegates to reach the finish line.

The math is relentless, yet Obama hasn’t won yet, and Hillary Clinton shows no sign of stopping. She will travel to Florida on Wednesday to argue that he wants to win the nomination by disenfranchising the state’s Democratic primary voters, a visit that can only damage him in a swing state crucial to Obama’s chances in November.

For the last week, Obama has been debating John McCain and President George Bush over how America should engage with its adversaries. A similar dilemma faces his campaign: How does he diplomatically handle Hillary Clinton’s exit from the race? What leverage does he have? If he doesn’t pressure her to get out, he risks looking weak, unable to win the nomination decisively. On the other hand, if he doesn’t let Clinton leave the race with dignity and grace, he risks alienating some of the women voters who have supported her so stoutly throughout the primaries and whom he needs in the fall. If he moves too aggressively to start his general-election bid, he risks looking like he’s disrespecting Clinton and her voters. You could see Obama wrestling with his dilemma Tuesday night in Iowa, the state that started his march to victory. Though he was there to celebrate taking the majority of pledged delegates, his campaign had been working all week to beat back the idea that he was taking a premature victory lap. Still, some Clinton allies saw it that way. One senior aide called it “an unnecessary towel snap.” In his victory remarks, Obama glorified his adversary. “In her 35 years of public service, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has never given up on her fight for the American people,” he said. “We have had our disagreements during this campaign, but we all admire her courage, her commitment, and her perseverance. No matter how this primary ends, Senator Clinton has shattered myths and broken barriers and changed the America in which my daughters and yours will come of age.” (Nice touch with the daughters.)

So, is Clinton really still in it or not? Rumors have been circulating through Democratic circles for days about discussions between Clinton and Obama fundraisers and advisers about how she’ll get out of the race. Will Obama help her retire her $20 million campaign debt? Not if she keeps pounding on him, say some. Obama fundraisers have already revolted at the idea of raising money for the vastly wealthy Clintons. But another Democratic veteran says that only by continuing the fight will she force Obama to send that e-mail to his supporters asking them to help her pay down her debts.

Most signs from inside the Clinton campaign suggest she’s still thoroughly in the race. After the pundits declared Clinton dead last week, her campaign manager, Maggie Williams, told the Clinton staff on several occasions, “We’re in this, and we’re in this ‘till the end.” Die-hard supporter Lanny Davis e-mailed around a letter he’d received from a voter in Pennsylvania arguing that Clinton was the better candidate against John McCain. Aides and allies were arguing that if Clinton thought she could make a plausible case that she was ahead in the popular vote, she’d perhaps continue arguing her case after the last primary on June 3.

In Clinton’s Tuesday night speech, there was no sign that she was giving in. After winning Kentucky by a whopping 35 points, she laid out an extensive and assertive case for giving her the nomination. She is the most experienced and best-positioned candidate for the fall; she’s winning swing states; she’s ahead in the popular vote if you count Florida and Michigan. “Keep working. Keep fighting,” Clinton told her supporters.

As Clinton presses her case, she’s also making it more painful for Obama if he tries to push her out. She told the Washington Post that the way she’s been treated in the race has been “deeply offensive to millions of women.” Her husband echoed this misogyny charge on Tuesday. The Clintons have now recharged the gender question, which has been a rallying cry for her supporters this campaign. Obama needs support from Clinton’s female supporters in the fall and now must tread even more carefully or risk alienating them.

If Obama can’t push Clinton directly, he can continue to get superdelegates to do his work for him. Several have said they will vote with the candidate who has won the majority of pledged delegates. He can encourage them to make good on that promise tomorrow. Obama could also argue to superdelegates that he would be in a stronger position to continue his foreign-policy battle with McCain if he had the full weight of the party behind him. If he can get enough superdelegates to move in a bunch, perhaps it would hasten Clinton’s departure.

The results in Kentucky and Oregon didn’t signal the end, but they did signal more than the beginning of the end. It’s the intermission in the middle of the beginning of the end.