Perhaps I’m being melodramatic, but tomorrow is one of the most critical events of the 2008 election. At this point, you’re thinking “aha, rules committee meeting.” But that’s not actually what I’m talking about. The truly truly critical event tomorrow is the Clinton campaign’s reaction to the rules committee’s decision. It could very well cost Obama the election — or win it for him.
I’m not saying anything that Josh Marshall and Hilzoy haven’t essentially already said, but it’s a point worth emphasizing. In the days ahead, the Clintons have the power either to unite the party going into the fall, or to leave a lasting, poisonous, and potentially-fatal schism. At this point, it’s not clear what path they’ll choose.
To back up, I haven’t been overly concerned with the extended primary for two reasons. First, I thought (correctly, I think) that an extended primary fight would increase both media visibility and voter registration. It would also have an “anti-Tasmanian Devil effect” by leaving institutional infrastructure — rather than chaos — in its wake as it swept across the country.
Second, I’ve always thought the party would inevitably unite around the nominee. Any lasting bitterness would wilt immediately upon the first sustained GOP assault on the nominee — that’s family, after all. Whatever disagreements I’ve had with people like Big Tent Democrat or Taylor Marsh, they’re all solid committed Democrats. You know, family. And so it was inconceivable to me that they wouldn’t come around when it mattered, and when the reality of a McCain administration became more real. (As for Larry Johnson, well, let’s just say that No Quarter will no longer grace my Google Reader with its presence).
But this latter assumption — inevitable party unity — is up in the air these days. There’s a lot of bad blood. And what’s really "baddening" that blood for Clinton supporters is the idea that she’s being cheated out of the nomination.
And that’s where Clinton herself comes in. Her supporters will follow her lead. If she acknowledges that her defeat was legitimate (regardless of how much she actually campaigns), then I think the party will unite. If, by contrast, she spends the next few days (or god forbid, months) alleging that it was illegitimate, then that reaction will leave lasting damage. Not just among pro-Clinton bloggers, but among her core supporters, particularly older liberal women.
The perception of legitimacy is essential to party unity. Accordingly, her reaction to tomorrow’s outcome will likely determine how her supporters will perceive her defeat. If she has no intention of going to Denver, then there’s a way of signaling that. She shouldn’t stir up Zimbabwe and all this other garbage strictly to gain leverage to pay off loans or to receive chits. The time for negotiations is over — there’s too much at stake now. The initial reaction is what the supporters will look to. If things have to get settled by superdelegates two weeks from now, or on appeal to a DNC committee, the damage — the irreversible damage — will have already been done.
So it’s a fateful choice — a Shakespearian one, even. Tomorrow’s a big day.