The Rhetorical Primary

It's time to ask Clinton how, exactly, she plans to win.

Before last night’s voting, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter unveiled the mathematical goods—there is simply no way, short of a miracle, that Hillary Clinton can overtake Obama in the pledged delegate count.

It wasn’t a new point, or one too hard to figure out—it’s been more or less clear since Edwards left the race, and Obama held down Clinton’s Super Tuesday delegate haul with late gains in the northeast.

But having acknowledged Clinton’s impossible odds, it’s now time for the press to sharpen their knives and ask, how, exactly, does the Clinton camp plan on winning this?

The honest answer is one plural, compound word: superdelegates.

And because of the whiff of smoke-filled rooms that the term conjures, the Clinton campaign hasn’t been eager to acknowledge that fact. Clinton and her surrogates have deployed a variety of creative non-answers to parry the question.

“Terry, she’s so far behind in delegates,” MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell said to Clinton campaign chair Terry McAuliffe last night. The implication being, how can she win? McAuliffe answered:

Well, I would remind you that we’ve got 12 states left to vote. We’ve got a lot of delegates still out there… We still have a lot of votes to be cast. And we should let the voters of Pennsylvania and West Virginia and Kentucky and all these other states. They ought to be able to go vote. Let’s see how it goes.

That’s true, more or less. But it isn’t an honest forecast, and is a pretty twisted piece of logic—we shouldn’t leave the race out of respect for voters who haven’t yet had a chance to vote, but on the convention floor, we’re going to call in the heavies to overturn the decision of those voters.

The facts are harsh. To overcome the pledged delegate gap, Clinton must find 150 or so uncommitted superdelegates to join her camp—or flip seventy-five-plus of Obama’s pledged delegates who are technically allowed (although unlikely) to vote anyway they like.

It would be na├»ve to think that there isn’t favor-trading going on behind the scenes as both camps woo the supers. (As an aside, that strikes me as a ripe area for reporting.) But out in the open, Clinton has only one option, and that’s to make a moral case that will win those delegates over.

This rhetorical battlefield is Clinton’s last chance to win. Any electoral “victories” that she can rack up by soldiering on are only arrows in her superdelegate-convincing quiver; they can’t change the fundamentals of the delegate math.

And if that war of ideas and words is the terrain of the race, the press needs to cover it at least as much as it needs to cover Wyoming, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, or, God forbid, Puerto Rico.

This is a two-theater framing battle. Clinton’s arguments focus either on questions of justice, or questions of electability. It’s about fairness and about what’s best for the party in November.

On the fairness front, Clinton’s strongest game-changer would be to win the popular vote. I can imagine many Democrats, still smarting from Bush v. Gore, at least willing to balk at the idea of Obama winning the nomination without winning the raw vote. But even after Clinton’s gains last night, Obama (excluding votes from Michigan and Florida—more on that in a bit) still holds a lead of 600,000. Until that gap is closed, Clinton’s camp will avoid making the popular-vote argument. But watch for it if things really go Clinton’s way in Pennsylvania and later contests.

Any denigration of Obama’s delegate haul from caucus states is, at heart, a fairness argument. We’ve heard talk from Hillary and Bill Clinton about the fundamental unfairness of caucuses: if you work when the caucus is held, too bad; if you can’t find or afford a babysitter, too bad. Watch for this, again, after Wyoming’s Saturday caucus, and if Obama takes the Texas caucus once the counting is done.

As far as electability goes, Clinton can make the same argument she’s made throughout the primary season—some jumble of the words “experience,” “dangerous times,” and “ready to lead”—while re-emphasizing Obama’s perceived vulnerability against John McCain on national security. The “buyer’s remorse” argument is something of a corollary. If she can make the case that voters turned against Obama in the late states, for whatever reason, that points to increasing salience on concerns about his electability in the general.

There’s also the “Big States” argument, which goes something like this: Clinton, having won California, New York, Texas, Ohio, and Florida has won the big states that Democrats pine to carry in a general election. While there’s no serious suggestion of a linkage between a candidate’s performance in a state’s primary and her ability to carry those same states in November, that hasn’t stopped the idea from becoming punditorial grist, especially since both campaigns have been flacking the contention—Obama to emphasize his red state crossover appeal, Clinton for big states.

Clinton is using something of a justice-electability hybrid in the cases of Florida and Michigan, two states which held their primaries, without permission from the DNC, too early and have had their delegates taken away by the national party. Clinton won those votes handily, but they are, so far, hollow victories in terms of delegates. Clinton at first said that she’d fight to have those delegations seated at the convention, but now the campaign seems to be pushing for a re-vote in Florida and Michigan. “We can’t disenfranchise Florida. Especially what happened after 2000. We can’t do it to them again,” said McAuliffe, salting an eight-year-old party wound to make a fairness argument. Now watch this: with his next words, McAuliffe immediately turns to an electability argument. “Michigan and Florida are two key states for the Democratic Party for this coming November.” And then, right back to fairness: “So whatever we have to do to get people into the system, let’s do it.”

But this morning, as Clinton made the network morning-show rounds to claim victory, CBS’s Harry Smith did not really ask about the race’s math. Robin Roberts at “Good Morning America” did, but Clinton buzzed past it with a royal bromide—“at the end of the day, we are going to be the nominee”—and Roberts did not follow up. NBC’s Meredith Vieira actually got Clinton to acknowledge the importance of superdelegates and how her campaign wants them to be viewed. (In short, the Clinton line was that superdelegates are meant to weigh late-breaking information and determine who will be the best nominee—an electability argument based on buyer’s remorse.)

Obama has strong arguments to counter Clinton’s. Many will, like Clinton’s, overlap and contradict. (Think of how a “Rules are Rules” argument would cut both ways for Obama—stunting Clinton’s quest to get Michigan and Florida through the door, while de-stigmatizing superdelegates. After all, they are called for in the party rules.) But Obama occupies the high ground—Clinton’s arguments must be so strong as to change the status quo, and overcome any queasiness about superdelegates pulling a convention flip-flop.

Any argument so important deserves careful and aggressive parsing by the press. This isn’t about red states or blue states, or dissecting exit polls. It’s about demanding some honesty in a complicated debate.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.