Go Hard Or Go Home? The Media Drumbeat For A Hillary Exit

Instead of looking ahead to how this debate might shape the upcoming primaries, the persistent buzz seems to be that Clinton should leave the race -- now.

It's the day of the Cleveland debate, the 20th in a series and the latest hotly-anticipated match-up between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but instead of looking ahead to how this debate might shape the upcoming primaries, the persistent buzz seems to be that Clinton should leave the race — now. Jonathan Alter's "Hillary Should Get Out Now" is the #1 most-viewed and most-emailed article on, and he's got company in WaPo's Richard Cohen, the NYT's Bob Herbert, and perpetual Dem cheerleader Robert Novak. Here's Alter:

If Hillary Clinton wanted a graceful exit, she'd drop out now — before the March 4 Texas and Ohio primaries — and endorse Barack Obama... Withdrawing would be stupid if Hillary had a reasonable chance to win the nomination, but she doesn't. To win, she would have to do more than reverse the tide in Texas and Ohio, where polls show Obama already even or closing fast. She would have to hold off his surge, then establish her own powerful momentum within three or four days... It's time to stop overlearning the lesson of New Hampshire.

Alter looks at the polls, crunches the numbers, does delegate math, and makes a convincing case that Clinton really needs a big win Ohio and Texas on March 4th, and probably won't get it. Except that we already knew that. He says, "to withdraw this week would be the best thing imaginable for Hillary's political career. She won't, of course, and for reasons that help explain why she's in so much trouble in the first place." But wouldn't those also be the reasons that help explain why she's still around after all these years?

That, of course, is what feeds into the other Hillary meme: Tenacity. The big lesson after New Hampshire was "don't count a Clinton out" (it was nominally "don't trust polls," but we've seen scant evidence of that) and since then the Clinton Comeback been the failsafe, kneejerk CYA argument keeping poll numbers at bay (i.e. here and here and here and here). While "don't count her out" hardly portends a victory, it does serve to remind that Clinton still has a pretty solid constituency among Democrats (though you do hear more about Obama's 11 straight victories than Clinton's big-state victories, even though the popular vote total from 13 caucuses was 1.2 million, compared with over 20 million in primaries). Long shot to win Ohio and Texas? You'd think so from the talk, but technically she still has a lead in those states (in Texas, emphasis on "technically").

None of this is to say that Clinton's favored to win — she's not, trend-wise (i.e. erosion of her lead). But even so, suggesting she drop out before March 4th seems a tad dire, so it's surprising that it's become such a media meme. I've watched the same debates, the same coverage, and don't agree that "A referee would stop the fight," as Herbert says, nor that "Hillary Clinton is exhausted, and her supporters are becoming increasingly demoralized." That piece was published Saturday, the same day that Clinton angrily challenged Obama to "Meet me in Ohio!" (exhausted?) and the same day that Tina Fey exhorted Texas and Ohio voters that "it's not too late" to throw their support behind a, er, person who got stuff done (demoralized?). Herbert was coming off the media's interpretation of Hillary's Thursday night debate-closer as a valedictory; amazing how out of date that seems now, doesn't it? I met two Hillary supporters coming out of the SNL dress rehearsal — identified by the huge stickers on their chests — and they were overjoyed at Fey's rant and the opening sketch which portrayed the media fawning over Obama. "The jig is up," one said. "Let's just hope there's enough time."

And there's that word — hope! Audacious, isn't it, for Hillary to have any? Ask WaPo's Cohen:

Politics can be ugly, not to mention sad. Broken dreams are strewn across the American landscape. Fred Thompson resigned from "Law & Order." Chris Dodd moved his family from Connecticut to Iowa just for the caucuses. Mitt Romney blew through a fortune. John Edwards campaigned through personal pain. The difference between a presidential candidate and a fool in love is only a matter of Secret Service protection.

Sweetly expressed and spot-on, though I am compelled to point out that technically only Clinton and Obama have had Secret Service protection. But otherwise, true — and let's not forget John McCain, who would have led that list six months ago. Like a lovesick puppy desperately hitting "send" on yet another pleading email, these candidates hang on tooth and nail despite the odds, and polls (cf. Richardson, Kucinich, Ron Paul). Yet political fortunes can change, dramatically — especially in this race (cf. Huckabee), so why not? Who knows, if Chris Dodd and Joe Biden had been considered the front-runners in this race instead of Clinton and Obama from the start, things might have been different (if you doubt, I draw your attention here to the Chris Dodd Debate Clock from June — face time makes a difference. And to anyone who takes themselves seriously pushing Obama as an "underdog," I further direct your attention to the person with the most face and airtime that night). The media doesn't make decisions for the voters, but they do have the power to, say, cut away from Hillary Clinton's speech to an Obama speech in the blink of an eye.

I admit that I was surprised to encounter those Hillary supporters Saturday night, just as I was surprised that so many commenters supported her after Tina Fey's commentary on SNL. It's not popular these days to support Hillary Clinton, but people do. They don't fill stadiums, but they do exist. Let's bring it back to the numbers: Just north of 21 million people have voted so far, and Obama is leading by just south of 1 million — but if you break out the red state wins (i.e. states Dems won't ever carry) then the margins get smaller. If ten million people voted for Hillary Clinton so far, isn't that a decent reason to see how the chips fall in Ohio and Texas — two states where she still, incidentally, has the edge? There are many ways of crunching the available numbers, and no one would say they indicate a shoo-in for Clinton. But you rarely see them crunched in favor of Clinton, or the fact that she has actual, legitimate support.

Let's face it, Hillary Clinton being upbeat and likable has never been a meme of this campaign, though if you read far enough along in Patrick Healy's NYT story, "Somber Clinton Soldiers on as Horizon Darkens," you might find some evidence. It's the third paragraph from the bottom...on the second page :

Through it all, Mrs. Clinton has not retreated into a shell. She asks her aides about their children, spouses and partners. She tries to keep the mood upbeat on the campaign plane, such as recently joking about how Ohio is so diverse that it sometimes feels like five different states. She looks and seems at her happiest after working rope lines and talking to people after round tables, hearing their stories and receiving hugs.

Wow, that sounds almost...likable. Might a paragraph like that ever be the lede? Probably not — even the audacity of hope has its limits.