Written by Mary Buffett
There is a good possibility that Hillary Clinton will wrap up the Democratic nomination today with wins in a number of Northeastern primary battles. As she moves closer to the magic number, Bernie Sanders will begin to quietly acknowledge the obvious and realize that simple math is preventing him from winning the nomination.
Here is a simple truth of presidential politics.
Voters want a candidate who will fight for the nomination. In Clinton’s case, it is especially difficult when you begin the campaign as a front runner. Every front runner who leaves the gates stumbles, even when in hindsight their nomination is obvious. Gerald Ford barely won the New Hampshire Primary in 1976 and only bested Ronald Reagan at the convention in Kansas City. Even when Reagan ran four years later, he stumbled in the Iowa caucus to George H.W. Bush only to rebound for the win in New Hampshire. Eight years later, George H.W. Bush stumbled in that same Iowa caucus briar patch and finished third to both Bob Dole and Pat Robertson but fought for his political life in New Hampshire and other states until Dole cried “Uncle.”
This has played out on the Democratic side over the years too. Back in 1984, Walter Mondale had wrapped up all of the endorsements that a Democratic nominee needs to win in the fall election but forgot that there was still a dogfight to be won on the primary trail. Gary Hart came closer than anybody realizes to ripping away that prize from Mondale, who would come to take the Democrats to their worst election drubbing in a generation. When Hillary Clinton lost the Iowa Caucus to an upstart Barack Obama eight years ago, the picture of defeat looked like a reunion photo with sad looking former senior officials from her husband’s presidency. By the time Clinton found her footing, it was too late and the strategists who powered Obama into the race, were able to outlast her and she acquiesced to reality on the eve of the Democratic Convention in Denver.
Instinctively, Americans want somebody who is going to fight for the nomination, somebody who is not afraid to battle all the way to the nomination. They want somebody who is going to slog through the snows of Iowa or visit every coffee house in New Hampshire, two states where voters take the selection process very seriously. They want to see what happens after a politician takes a punch; do they get back up as Bill Clinton appears to do on every occasion or do they crumple to the ground like others who were not made of strong stuff have done in the past. Perhaps voters intuitively see an odd transference where stamina on the campaign trail somehow equates to courage while pondering over those toughest decisions that enter into the Oval Office while an entire world watches and waits. Americans also want somebody who when he or she realizes the inevitable departs the field with grace.
As for Sanders and his campaign, you know that you have turned the corner when you sound like a sore loser. Now it appears that Hillary Clinton has figured out that rubric as she is propelled to the nomination, what is coming out of the Sanders campaign is a lot of sour grapes and poor excuses. We now hear that Sanders attributes his losses to the idea that “poor people don’t vote” or unfair rules or that super-delegates allegiances somehow thwart the will of the party. It is doubtful that Sanders would be singing that tune if the situations were reversed and he controlled the lion’s shares of super delegates and enjoyed insurmountable momentum.
However, it goes to show that in politics there is nothing new under the sun. Back in 2008, there were some, like Lynn Forester de Rothschild, who informally ran a group of Hillary die-hards called PUMA (Party Unity My Ass) who would rather vote for John McCain over Barack Obama, even as the nation sank into a financial crisis not seen since The Great Depression. We have seen, time after time, that those who cry in their beer discover all-too-often that voters will remember how they handle themselves if the numbers go against them. Right now, Bernie Sanders has to ask some tough questions about where things go from here because it is now apparent that somebody else will win the nomination, not him.
How it used to be. There was a time when candidates did not have to go on the road to fight for the nomination in far-away hamlets and at chicken dinners in other small towns. Deals were cut with big city bosses, other regional power brokers, and national special interests. Coalitions were built and soon candidates could bandwagon their way to the nomination. Thankfully those days are gone and there is an insistence that candidates should work the old-fashioned way and win from the ground up.
It makes one wonder what might have happened back in 1968, when Hubert Humphrey, then LBJ’s Vice President, entered the field after Johnson announced that he would withdraw from the race. While Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy fought it out in small number of primary states (back then there were only a few primary states and many of the total back then were not binding when it came to delegate totals), they were able to get a good idea about where the nation was heading. Meanwhile, Humphrey quietly sewed up delegation after delegation without entering into one single primary.
Humphrey might have been able to win the nomination without entering a primary but as one who at the National Democratic Convention in Chicago in that very scary year of 1968, it turned out to be an empty prize as anarchy ruled the streets.
Had Humphrey took his act on the road and went out an earned the nomination from the American people, he might have fashioned his message in a way that would have been a winning message in the fall campaign against Richard Nixon. He might have split from Johnson on Vietnam far earlier than in the waning moments of the fall campaign. Had he done that, the convention in Chicago would not have been mayhem in the streets. Had he won, the war might have ended in the summer of 1969 and the POWs would have returned home three years earlier. We might have avoided the seasons of protest that took hold of America for years to come. We might not have lost another 21,000 kids who went to Vietnam but returned in body bags, lost forever to their families and other loved ones. We might not have had Watergate, the worst constitutional crisis since the Civil War divided another generation of Americans.
As Hillary Clinton moves closer to the nomination and looks to a fall campaign against the weakest Republican field in a generation, she can conclude that she has earned the nomination the hard way. Voters saw her punch and counterpunch her way past a group of competing candidates. They saw her get up off the floor after some tough breaks. She did not lose her cool or her faith during a rough string of primary losses. She kept going and even if she was not the first choice of many on the progressive left, she is certainly one that they can work with over the next four to eight years in the White House.