Last week was officially the moment that the race for the Democratic nomination slipped through the looking glass into surrealism. Here is a brief list of those people who are now actively supporting Hillary Clinton’s candidacy: Pat Buchanan, a charming man slightly to the right of Genghis Khan; Rush Limbaugh, the most voluble and incendiary of right-wing talk-show hosts; Richard Mellon Scaife, the media mogul who financed the virulently antiClinton crusades of the 1990s; and, if you read between the lines, even Karl Rove, the “architect” of the past decade or so of Republican dominance in electoral politics.
Am I hallucinating? I promise you I’m not. The merging of the forces that once persecuted the Clintons with the Clinton campaign itself has been a wonder to behold. Some on the once solidly anti-Clinton right have even been directly urging people to register as Democrats to vote for her.
Limbaugh began his pro-Clinton campaign when Ohio and Texas were at stake. Last Wednesday he claimed success in getting enough Republicans to vote for Clinton in Pennsylvania to keep her candidacy alive. Limbaugh calls his initiative Operation Chaos. “Were it not for Operation Chaos, [Barack] Obama could win this by winning the primary process. But he can’t now,” he bragged last week. Yes, this is the same Limbaugh who rose to fame hawking White-water and Lewinsky for eight years. Now he wants to save the couple he once wanted to impeach.
Or take Rove. In a brilliant opinion piece last week in The Wall Street Journal he insisted Obama could not win white ethnic voters in the autumn, and he even endorsed one of the Clinton campaign’s least persuasive arguments: that the votes in the Michigan and Florida primaries – deemed illegitimate by party bosses ahead of time because the states broke the rules by scheduling their primaries out of order – should be counted in the popular vote tally.
I don’t know anyone outside Clinton’s inner circle who actually believes that those states’ decision to violate the rules (and her choice to put her name on the illegitimate Michigan ballot) should now count retroactively in her favour. But Rove now does – and is clearly doing what he can to legitimise Clinton’s only chance of winning the nomination.
You have to pinch yourself as Buchanan – the former senior adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Rea-gan, and a man who clearly believes John McCain is a flaming liberal – all but endorses Clinton night after night on television. Buchanan’s rationale: “Obama cannot concede that the anger of white America – that its right to equal justice has been sacrificed to salve the consciences of guilt-besotted liberals – is a legitimate anger.”
Meanwhile we witnessed another surreal inversion. Last Tuesday night Terry McAuliffe, the Clintons’ money man, appeared on a network that many Democrats view as anathema and said: “Let me congratulate Fox [the TV network], because you were the first to call it for Hillary Clinton. Fair and balanced Fox: you beat them all.” Fox is now using the Clinton spokesman as part of an ad promo.
The icing on the cake was the endorsement of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, owned by Scaife, the man who bankrolled the impeachment of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Hillary even sat down with Scaife for a fawning interview. His paper concluded: “Clinton’s decision to sit down with the Trib was courageous, given our long-standing criticism of her . . . Political courage is essential in a president. Clinton has demonstrated it; Obama has not. She has a real record. He doesn’t. She has experience of value to a president. He doesn’t.”
The Clintons are pragmatists, to put it kindly, when it comes to advancing their own interests and have long played the politics of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. It’s also indisputable that Obama gave them a gift with his unforced error about “bitter” Pennsylvania voters.
The shrewd and subtle invocation of racial tropes against Obama is also something that these Arkansan operators know well. One recalls that Bill Clinton interrupted his primary campaign in 1992 to return to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a mentally retarded black man. He was a master at bonding with African-Ameri-cans while signalling to white voters that he was also a Bubba underneath.
This time, after telling North Carolina voters last week that a black candidate doesn’t care about “people like you”, he has allowed Bubba to become the public face. His wife’s emergence in Pennsylvania as a tribune of the white working classes is part of the Clintons’, er, flexibility.
But what explains the Republicans’ sudden love for the Clintons is a little less obvious than the reasons for the Clintons’ sudden love for them. On paper, there is no actual policy difference to speak of between Obama and Hillary Clinton. Their one main disagreement is on healthcare mandates – and on that question, Obama is, if anything, slightly to Clinton’s right.
What’s going on, I think, is a classic bluff – as well as a simple desire to keep the Democrats’ agony going. Yes, Obama does have obvious problems winning over older and whiter voters in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio. His recent sub-par performances have not helped. But in a hypothetical contest between McCain and Clinton, the very forces that help keep Clinton ahead among these voters in the primaries would aid McCain against Clinton in the general election. McCain’s a Scots-Irish Vietnam vet with an independent streak. He should beat her easily in this demographic.
If, however, Clinton becomes the nominee by wrestling superdelegates away from Obama at the convention (which, barring a catastrophe, is the only way she can do it), McCain’s advantages grow even more.
The Democrats led by Clinton would haemorrhage desperately needed black votes and young votes. All the new money, new votes and new enthusiasm that Obama has brought into his party would not just disappear; the new voters would be actively enraged, sit out the election or even vote for McCain.
For all these reasons, the Republicans know that Clinton is still one of their key assets. That’s why they have a sudden, new-found love for her. Obama scrambles politics in ways they do not fully understand yet, and profoundly fear. Endorsing Clinton’s attempt to redefine him as an elitist, leftist snob is win-win for them.
If Clinton prevails, they know how to beat her. If she loses, she will have legitimised a main Republican line of attack against Obama. It’s not that hard to understand. And it’s even more intelligible when you absorb a simple fact. Beneath the headlines about suicidal Democrats, there is a sobering reality for the Republicans in the current polling.
Even now – as the Democrats are tearing themselves apart – the polls are still showing that McCain and Obama are all but tied in the national vote. In a swing state such as Minne-sota, Obama actually has a 14-point lead over McCain, as of last Thursday.
The death match is now. And the Clintons and the Republicans need all the mutual support they can muster.
About the only thing I can add is that I don't think Billary & Co. will succeed in "killing" Obama.