Friendly Advice for Hillary: The Best Way to Play a Losing Hand

After another big loss in Wisconsin, a successful comeback that ends with her party's nomination would require that Hillary draw the equivalent of four aces and a wild-card joker.
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When stuck with a losing hand, even good professional poker players often don't know when to drop out, because they've thrown so much of their ego along with their chips into the pot. But the greatest players don't fool themselves. They swallow their pride, conserve their capital, and fold their cards. They start thinking about a new opportunity to win. That's the kind of thinking and decision-making Hillary Clinton needs right now, before the next round of primaries in Ohio and Texas. She'll never have a better time to call it quits and play for another day.

The conventional wisdom inside the Beltway is that Hillary Clinton, as fiercely competitive as Roger Clemens, will do whatever it takes to win. At this late stage, however, after yet another big loss in a presidential battleground state like Wisconsin, a successful comeback that ends with her party's nomination in Denver would require that Hillary draw the equivalent of four aces and a wild-card joker. That's essentially what it would take for her to: win all of the remaining primaries and contested delegates by sizeable margins; yank the majority of superdelegates onto her sputtering bandwagon; capture most of the heretofore disqualified delegates from Florida and Michigan after the Clinton campaign helps the Democratic Party rewrite the rules. Yes, indeed, she would need the joker to pull off the last one. And if she somehow did, the furor it would unleash among millions of Barack Obama's African American and young supporters -- the next generation of Democratic voters -- would doom Hillary's chances in November.

With each passing day, an ultimately successful Clinton comeback seems less like a plausible storyline and more like -- as Bill Clinton might say -- one of the biggest fairytales in modern American politics.

Before the "it's-still-a-horse-race" storyline is washed away by political reality, Hillary Clinton should move quickly to get the maximum political gain out of her impending loss. Fair or not, a big part of Clinton's problem is her image as a scheming, conniving unprincipled politician. To be sure, the image is strongest among non-Democrats, but it's a huge liability in the general election when independent voters determine the outcome. Hillary's high personal negatives are the big reason why political handicappers think Clinton would not fare well against John McCain.

Taking the high road is Hillary's best bet. An unexpectedly quick, gracious and magnanimous departure from the race could serve as the first step in her journey to becoming a "new" Hillary Clinton. At a news conference in the next several days, she might say something like this: "I have been privileged to be part of a great watershed in the history of our country. For the first time, a woman and an African American became the leading candidates for the nomination of one of our two great political parties. But ultimately, both my campaign and Senator Obama's are not about gender or race. Both campaigns are about changing the direction of the country, repairing the damage that has been done by the current administration, and restoring America's democratic ideals as a beacon of hope around the world. I ran for my party's nomination because I thought that I would make the best president. But in our democracy, that's a decision, of course, that is in the hands of my fellow citizens. And it is becoming increasingly clear that more of them believe that Sen. Obama will be the party's best choice to run for president. A prolonged, drawn-out and potentially contentious ending for the party's nomination is not in the best interests of either our party or, most important, our country. The urgency of electing a Democrat in November could not be greater. I pledge my full, enthusiastic support to Senator Obama, and I will do everything I can to help him become the next president of the United States."

Although her passionate supporters will be shocked and disappointed, they'll get over it. In the eyes of important Democratic constituencies, especially African Americans, her unforced departure will repair and enhance her reputation. Her stature as a party leader, including her influence in the Senate, will get a considerable boost, as will her standing with independent voters, especially those who backed Obama in the primaries. And even a jaded, cynical national press will probably have to give Hillary at least a left-handed compliment, calling her surprise announcement "unClintonian."

To be sure, this is not the jackpot Hillary Clinton was after. But it's the best she can do under the circumstances. Perhaps nobody will even notice that in dropping out now, she has also begun to position herself for a better result four or eight years down the road.

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