The Long and Winding Road

Last week was the third time that many hopes and expectations for an early Barack Obama triumph in the Democratic presidential primaries were dashed. It was possible to imagine (and I did) that he would roll on from Iowa to victory in New Hampshire and become unstoppable. Many thought he would prevail on Super Tuesday, or that he would win Texas and force Hillary Clinton to withdraw. Well, hand it to Hillary Clinton. If she is nasty and negative when it's on the line, she is also shrewd and relentless, a dogged fighter. And she can deliver a great opening line on Saturday Night Live.

The unpredictable and intensely competitive twists and turns of the campaign have forced Barack Obama to become a better candidate, and have drawn millions of voters, workers, and contributors into the Democratic race. To a point, this has all been good for democracy and the Democratic Party. But you have to wonder if that point wasn't passed around the time when former Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro suggested (yesterday) that Senator Obama wouldn't be in this thing if he weren't black, and that the media wouldn't have crawled all over her for this outrageous remark if she weren't white. (So, she would have been the party's vice-presidential nominee in 1984 if she had not been a woman?). Maybe it would have better come to an end earlier, when the Clintons first started playing the race card in South Carolina. Or maybe in the last week, when the Clinton campaign could not figure out just when Obama would be ready to be president: After Hillary Clinton had served her eight years? After she had won the nomination and decided he was experienced enough to be her running mate, because she realized it was the only way she was going to be able to heal the bleeding wounds in the party that her campaign had largely inflicted by its calculatedly divisive tactics? After Samantha Power had lost it herself and called the New York Senator a "monster", then tried to take it back from the record?

As a student of democracy, I am left feeling torn between exhaustion with this periodically pathetic spectacle and exhilaration with the inspiration, engagement, and outpouring of participation it has brought forth in state after state. Democrats have the benefit of unbelievable passion and attention, and tens of millions of dollars pouring into these two campaigns every month. They also have the anxiety of watching their two best candidates bloody one another in a demolition derby with no end in sight, while John McCain calmly goes about (until he blows his temper again) telling the party right wingers whatever they want to hear, building the organization, and raising the money he will need to compete and win.

By all accounts, this should be a Democratic year. We are coming off one of the most disastrously incompetent, negligent, and damaging presidencies in modern American history. We are mired in two wars. One is deteriorating needlessly; the other is going better for now but continues draining the military and the treasury, while posing a vexing challenge of how to extricate ourselves any time soon without calamity. The economy is entering recession and the governing Republicans will not be able to turn it around before the election. Deficits yawn into the horizon. Gas prices soar through the roof. Global warming gallops forward, threatening our very civilization in a longer run that few politicians want to risk political capital to address. And George W. Bush stands there in front of the White House, doing a little two-step while he waits for his 71-year-old presumptive successor to show up and be anointed. If ever there looked like a losing year for Republicans....

It may be hard to imagine if you are watching the nightly news or Saturday Night Live, but the Republicans could well still lose. The Democratic path to the nomination, not to mention the presidency, is going to be long and winding and utterly draining. It is fair to wonder whether the nomination will be worth having if it is not finally determined until the floor of the convention, shortly before Labor Day, by a punch of politicians deciding at the last moment who can best save their leaking ship. But there is another plausible and slightly more cheering scenario.

At some point -- probably in early June, after Michigan and Florida will have voted for the first serious time in some kind of do-over primary, funded by the Democrats -- the voting and caucusing is going to end, more than two months in advance of the convention. If Senator Clinton has rolled up large enough victories in the remaining contests -- Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, Kentucky, Oregon, and then presumably Michigan and Florida -- to surge ahead in the popular vote and close the gap in pledged delegates or even go ahead, it will be hard for Barack Obama to deny her the nomination just because he has won more states (like Iowa, South Carolina, Vermont and Wyoming). But if Obama comes out of this long and winding process with more popular votes, more pledged delegates, and -- despite the withering assaults of the Clinton campaign -- a better prospect of beating John McCain in most of the polls, then there is no way he can be denied the nomination without the Democratic Party committing suicide in November. (And it will be very hard, under that scenario, to imagine Obama legitimating what his supporters would almost universally regard as a theft of his rightful nomination by agreeing to be Hillary Clinton's running mate). The Super Delegates are not going to jump off that cliff just so the Clintons can lead the Democratic Party again.

For the Democrats, one of those is the hopeful scenario: Hillary Clinton wins nearly everything remaining, and decisively enough to establish leads in everything that matters, or Obama wins enough to retain his leads, clinch his claim to the nomination, unify the party, energize the base like no time in recent memory, and win in November. The latter is much more likely, since, as analysts like Chuck Todd have shown, Hillary Clinton would have to win consistently and by massive margins in the remaining states in order to take the lead in pledged delegates. However well she does in Pennsylvania and the like, there is enough diversity left among the remaining states, and sufficient money, energy, resilience, and appeal in the Obama campaign, to make a Hillary landslide almost impossible.

This leaves open two further possibilities. One is genuine deadlock, with neither side yielding, the super delegates splitting, and the fantasy of political media junkies finally materializing: a brokered convention. The other is that, after Democratic voters in so many states at critical moments have voted to keep the race going, those in key states down the line will realize that uniting the party for victory in 2008 will mean uniting it pretty soon behind Barack Obama.