Hillary Clinton actually got the improbable, jaw-dropping gaffe she needed to get back into this thing. Too bad it spewed out of her mouth and not Barack Obama’s.
With one unfortunate reference to Bobby Kennedy at the very end of an interview with a South Dakota newspaper, Hillary directly undermined all three of her claims to the nomination: that she is experienced, electable, and not the worst person in America.
Clinton immediately issued an unapologetic apology and accused the Obama camp (and everyone else in the speaking world, pretty much) of taking her out of context, but almost a week later she still hasn’t provided any herself and, at least online, a transcript of the interview is difficult to find. So for the record, here’s the context:
CLINTON: Honestly, I just believe that this is the most important job in the world, it’s the toughest job in the world. You should be willing to campaign for every vote. You should be willing to debate anytime, anywhere. I think it’s an interesting juxtaposition where we find ourselves. I have been willing to do all of that during the entire process and people have been trying to push me out of this ever since Iowa.
CLINTON: I don’t know. I don’t know. I find it curious because it is unprecedented in history. I don’t understand it. Between my opponent and his camp and some in the media there has been this urgency to end this. Historically, that makes no sense, so I find it a bit of a mystery.
INTERVIEWER: You don’t buy the party unity argument?
CLINTON: I don’t because, again, I’ve been around long enough. You know my husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. You know, I just don’t understand it and there’s lot of speculation about why it is, but…
INTERVIEWER: What’s your speculation?
CLINTON: You know, I don’t know, I find it curious and I don’t want to attribute motives or strategies to people because I don’t really know, but it’s a historical curiosity to me.
INTERVIEWER: Does it have anything to do with gender?
CLINTON: I don’t know that either.
End of interview. No more context.
So let’s make some. When Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 4, 1968, he had been a presidential candidate for less than three months. (The Democratic nomination for president had only been truly contested since the incumbent president and presumptive nominee Lyndon Johnson had dropped out of the race about 70 days earlier.) As of this writing, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been candidates for nearly a year and a half. To claim, as Hillary does now, that “the length of this year’s primary contest is nothing unusual” is laughable. Either she has a tenuous grasp of history or she expects that we do.
You and I have already discussed the fact that Hillary hardly ever means what she says. But there is only one way to interpret her remarks comparing this campaign with ones in 1968 and 1992. She was trying to say that everyone should have patience and wait until all the primary issues are resolved because, even though it looks like she doesn’t have a chance to win this thing, in presidential politics anything can happen. Unfortunately, her examples of “anything” included a political assassination.
Incredibly, even while running one of the most nuanced political campaigns in history, Hillary can drop a bomb like that and then accuse the Obama campaign of playing dirty by making a big deal about it. “Almost immediately, some took my comments entirely out of context and interpreted them to mean something completely different—and completely unthinkable,” she wrote in a New York Daily News op-ed.
Of course, the reason people think she could say something “completely unthinkable” is that she says shit that’s completely unthinkable all the time. The Montana primary is coming up and I fully expect her to say, “I don’t understand why people want me to drop out of the race. After all, Montana is a big place. Almost every week people just wander off into the woods and are never heard from again. I’m not saying that will happen to Sen. Obama, and shame on him in advance for thinking I could even suggest that he might get eaten by a bear. I’m just saying that Montana is a big state. With lots of bears.”
Most of us who want to get on with Obama vs. McCain don’t want Hillary to drop out because we think her increasingly bizarre persistence is going to hurt the party. We want her to drop out because, unlike in Bobby Kennedy or Bill Clinton’s day, the California primary is no longer held in June and there simply aren’t enough delegates left for her to win. We want her to quit because her last cynical hope is for misfortune to strike the most inspirational political figure of our generation. We want her to step down because, when their own ambitions are frustrated, the Clintons always offer blame and conspiracy theories before hard truth. We want her to step aside because instead of condemning her racist supporters who openly declare they will never vote for a black man, she counts their ignorance as one of her assets and asks good people to throw their lot in with them. If her campaign started as one of good intentions, in the last few weeks it has become ethically unsustainable.
There actually is one legitimate comparison between 2008 and 1968. In both elections, one of the candidates was mathematically eliminated from the delegate count and lobbied for coronation at the hands of party insiders who might consider the establishment candidate more electable, even though the anti-war contenders had enjoyed greater success in the primaries. It must be inspiring to Hillary that Hubert Humphrey actually got that coronation at the Democratic convention, infamously igniting a riot of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern supporters on the streets of Chicago. And although he lost the general election to Richard Nixon, Humphrey eventually got his name affixed to the worst baseball stadium in America.
Maybe instead of offering her the number-two spot, Obama could raise enough dough for naming rights on that new Mets ballpark.
Personally, I think I have outrage fatigue, and couldn’t manage to get worked up over this particular incident. After “Bittergate,” “Bosniagate,” and “Wrightgate,” I just don’t care about “black-guy-could-always-be-assassinated-gate.” I’m sort of surprised there isn’t more collective “-gate” fatigue. My biggest issue is that we need to retire “-gate” as the all-purpose scandal suffix. Can’t we do better? Remember ABSCAM? I’d like to get back to that. Let’s start calling everything “-scam.” For example, McCain claiming to be the incorruptible Washington maverick while surrounding himself with lobbyists could be called “total-hypocrite-scam.”
The media overkill allowed both Bill and Hillary to play their recent favorite card, the Ace of Self-Pity. Bill has been speaking of a shadowy “they” that is seeking to deny Hillary the nomination by pushing her from the race “before the votes are counted,” a deliberate and shameless reference to the Florida recount in 2000. The Clinton die-hards have ginned up some outrage based on alleged sexism and misogyny, but outside of the true believers, they don’t seem to be gaining too much traction. If Hillary Clinton was something other than the establishment candidate, you could’ve fooled me. Hillary’s final gambit is to keep everything frothed up so it looks like there’s still a race. In fact, I’d argue that this contretemps helps her, since she can’t be ignored, as has been the case since North Carolina and Indiana. But it must be really, really tiring to get so outraged so often. It’s starting to look like the World Wrestling Federation pre-match television hype. I think I can smell what the Clinton campaign is cooking and it resembles poo-poo.
Speaking of things that are full of shit, our old friend, Clinton backer/lawyer Lanny Davis, is presently arguing that Hilary deserves better than 75 percent of the Michigan delegates. The logic is more tortured than a Guantánamo detainee. It reminds me of a strategy a cousin used to use on me when I was young and gullible (OK, 23). Our grandmother would give us a package of regular M&Ms to split and my cousin would say that, “just to be fair,” he would take all the dark- and light-brown ones while I could have the others, “because they taste better.” Open any bag of M&Ms and you’ll see a good two-thirds of them are dark or light brown, leaving me constantly shorted in the exchange. Also, all M&Ms taste the same. I’ve had my revenge, though: My cousin is now diabetic.
The Clinton camp’s last hope for superdelegates to move toward her rests on two fronts, both of which are shakier than the camera work in Cloverfield: that Hillary is “leading” in the popular vote, and that she’s more electable.
The popular-vote argument is of the “if you look at the thing from a certain angle and squint really hard you can kind of sort of see it” variety. If you include Florida and Michigan, making sure to credit Obama with zero votes in Michigan, while excluding the caucus states that don’t report overall popular vote totals, and Hillary wins by a significant margin in our 51st state-in-waiting, Puerto Rico, then she may have more votes than Barack Obama in the primaries. Never mind the logical fallacy at the core of the rationale, which is that if it were a race for votes, Obama would have run a different kind of campaign that pursued popular vote margins rather than delegates, but using Puerto Rico to determine the nominee is absurd. As you well know, they compete against the United States in the Olympics, with the Puerto Rican basketball team actually defeating our N.B.A. stars in the last go-around. Do we really trust these people not to sabotage our international sporting fortunes by voting for the non-hooping candidate?
(I actually have some affinity for the Clinton popular-vote argument since I use it to delude myself into thinking that my recently released book, So You Want to Be President?, the definitive and hilarious guide to running for the Oval Office, is a bestseller. Normally, its overall Amazon ranking hovers in the healthy hundreds of thousands, but on occasion, like when I buy a copy, the ranking improves enough to find itself in the Top 100 in a publishing subcategory. I can’t tell you how proud I was the day I hit no. 68 on the Books—Political—Entertainment—Satire—Paperback—Author’s Last Name S-Z, bestseller list.)
On the electability front, the Clinton people point to head-to-head polls that show Clinton leading McCain by greater margins than Obama in certain swing states. What these polls show is something undoubtedly true: The election has been very, very close and Hillary Clinton retains plenty of support. However, the Clinton campaign’s electability argument doesn’t take into account what would happen to her electability if she happened to win the nomination without Obama imploding on his own or bowing out. Right now, when Clinton supporters are surveyed about an Obama-vs.-McCain match-up, some percentage of them are likely to name McCain out of spite or disappointment, particularly since their answer may actively help Hillary by painting Obama as a weak general-election candidate. An Obama supporter, when asked about a Clinton-vs.-McCain match-up, feels comfortable choosing Hillary because they know that a Clinton candidacy in the fall is about as likely as Lindsay Lohan’s little sister avoiding a future sex-tape scandal.
However, if Hillary managed to outfox us all, I have to think that the resulting uproar would make her about as electable as Mitt Romney.