Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Clinton Aftermath--And Future???

With the end of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, much time will be spent over the coming months on post mortems that will try to explain her failure to achieve the Democratic Party’s nomination. One question that will surely be asked in these analyses is why Senator Clinton continued to run well after it became clear that the mathematical possibility of winning a majority of elected delegates was gone. As her campaign continued though the latter contests, Obama supporters, and no doubt a number of realists within the Clinton campaign, worried that her tactics would irreparably damage Obama’s chances in the fall.

Much of this handwringing has sought to get inside Senator Clinton’s psyche and decipher her true motivations. Was her pyrrhic campaign indeed designed to bring down Obama so that she could rescue the Democratic Party in 2012? Knowing that she wouldn’t be the nominee, did she persevere in order to assure an offer of the Vice Presidential spot? Did she feel that the Democrats’ chances of winning the White House were so good that she could capture the nomination, despite taking the party through a divisive and protracted fight, and still become President?

The answers to these questions, rather than being gleaned from armchair psychoanalysis, might rather be found in exploring the recent history of the Democratic Party’s nomination process. In looking over the last several decades, one notices that a clear pattern emerges when the Democrats choose their standard bearer. In short, in only rare instances has a candidate who at one time sought the nomination, and lost, been able to win the nomination at a later time. The Democrats reward newcomers. Since the modern primary process has been in place, only one Democratic nominee has at an earlier time been a failed candidate. That one nominee is Al Gore, who first ran for president in 1988. Even here though, Gore received the nomination through what we might call an “heir apparent” candidacy, having served as Bill Clinton’s Vice President. Facing only Bill Bradley in 2000, Gore was essentially handed the Democrats’ nomination without a fight.

All of the other recent Democratic nominees, however, received the nomination during their first run for President. Rather than being the anomaly that many view him to be, Senator Obama in fact is the norm for modern Democratic nominees. John Kerry, Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, and Jimmy Carter were all nominated for President during their first run for the White House. Each was relatively unknown on the national scale, with the exception of Mondale who had been Carter’s Vice President. A look at the Democratic fields over this recent history reveals several candidacies that having failed once, failed again—John Edwards, Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich, Richard Gephardt, Jesse Jackson, and Gary Hart come immediately to mind. In fact, being an unsuccessful Vice Presidential nominee doesn’t seem to give one a later advantage either, as John Edwards and Joe Lieberman can attest to.

To understand why the Democratic nomination process tends to benefit newcomers, we might look at another part of this year’s drama for the answer—namely the rules for awarding elected delegates. The proportional allocation of elected delegates ensures that should the primaries and caucuses be highly competitive, no candidate is able to run away with the nomination. Candidates who have run, but failed, for the nomination before presumably have a degree of name recognition, party service, and fundraising prowess that should help them in their second run for President. Senator Clinton, though a first time candidate, had these qualities in spades going into 2008. These advantages, however, haven’t translated into the nomination. Once Senator Obama pulled his upset in Iowa, and then followed it up with a victory in South Carolina and several key Super Tuesday states, it became clear that the dynamic had changed. Having proven the validity of his candidacy, Obama was in the race for the long haul and there was little Clinton could do to stop him. While Senator Clinton won a number of late contests, Obama’s delegate lead held.

Therefore, when one looks at the recent history of Democratic nomination fights, the motivation of Senator Clinton for staying in the race until the end becomes somewhat clearer. Recent history suggests that if she didn’t win this year, she would probably never win. The Democratic Party has a history of moving on to someone new. Having now ended her campaign, Clinton’s White House aspirations seem to rest not only with Obama’s willingness to pick her as his running mate, but on his victory in November as well. While the selection of Clinton to the number two spot seems increasingly slim as the days go by, these fading hopes may be her only chance of reaching the White House.

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