How Far Will Democrats Go?

Hillary Clinton won Ohio. It is a win unmarred by the controversies that invalidated Florida and Michigan, and a win untouched by the obviousness that afflicted California and New York. Ohio matters. Its role in 2004 has left it with an almost talismanic significance in the Democratic psyche, and Clinton will, from here until the convention, trade on that for all it is worth. She began her victory speech with the remark, "You know what they say: As goes Ohio, so goes the nation." This, now, is her strategy: to convince the Democrats that as goes Ohio, so goes the nation, and so, if they want the nation, they'd best follow Ohio and nominate Hillary Clinton.

It is the first of her campaign's recent arguments that has actually made sense. It was laughable when Mark Penn wondered whether Democrats could really afford a nominee who hadn't won any big states other than Illinois. Barack Obama will not lose New York and California. It was silly when the Clinton campaign argued that caucuses shouldn't count because they took too long to conduct. No one believed they'd have discovered a similar objection if they had won a couple more of them.

But Ohio has a different power, and a real argument, beneath it. John McCain's Lazarus-like resurrection has gifted the Republicans a nominee who should prove powerful in the interior West, throwing into grave doubt any Democratic strategy that relies too heavily on the region. More worryingly for Obama, there's evidence that the demographics that Hillary carries, and that will probably decide states like Florida and Ohio, are not merely preferential toward Clinton but actively opposed to his nomination. This, then, is the worrying portent for Obama: Clinton's demonstrated strength in Ohio and her likely edge in Florida suggest that though most general election polls show Obama performing better against McCain, she may perform best where it matters.

Moreover, her stubborn resilience harks back to a past argument for her candidacy, one that she's hinted around but been unable to actually say. Early on in the primary, there was a feeling that Obama's gifts were undeniable, but his desire to be liked would overwhelm his desperation to win. Clinton, by contrast, would use whatever means necessary to secure her victory. If that meant nailing Giuliani to the wall for his adultery, or running a quiet smear campaign against John McCain, so be it. Back in those days, before hope became the buzzword of the Democratic primary and before Obama's political talents left liberals convinced they could win clean and win big, this was Clinton's major advantage. She might not win pretty, but she would win. And winning, after eight years of George W. Bush, would be paramount.

In Ohio, Clinton proved that going negative works. She spent the last week running a "kitchen sink" strategy, so named because she tossed everything but the kitchen sink at Obama. She attacked him for vague ties to the indicted financier Tony Rezko, for intimations that he might not be as anti-NAFTA as he suggested, for being incapable of answering the phone in the White House during the early morning hours, and, slightly humorously, for sending out unfair attack mailers. And it worked. She controlled the news cycles, one after the other, and his momentum was easily blunted.

Clinton's problem now is that she doesn't need to beat Obama, she has to convince the superdelegates to beat Obama for her. And this requires a different sort of argument. Even under assumptions very favorable to Clinton, Obama is likely to end the primaries with 100 or so more pledged delegates than she has. Her only hope is that the party elders, the so-called superdelegates, will grow so uncomfortable with Obama's weaknesses that they'll intervene on her behalf, risking the ire of their constituents, the fury of African-American voters who feel betrayed by their party, and a convention storyline that blames a smoke-filled backroom for overturning the will of the voters. That's a tall order.

To convince them to do so, she'll need to fatally wound Obama. But attacking that ferociously will destroy her candidacy, too, and infuriate superdelegates who see her irreversibly bloodying the Democrats' likely nominee and thus hurting the party's chances for victory. What she really needs is for Obama to independently collapse, so the superdelegates have a reason to turn on him. But that's exceedingly unlikely. The only close contender for unsettling the superdelegates is if Obama, rather than collapsing, proves himself passive and vulnerable before Clinton's continuing assault, and thus suggests that he'll be shredded by the Republicans' fusillade. Democrats, after years of cowering before the right wing's attacks, will not send a political pacifist into the general election.

This, then, is Obama's charge. He needs to convince the superdelegates, and future primary voters, that he's got the steel to endure the upcoming battle against John McCain. "I have to explain to people: I'm skinny but I'm tough," Obama has said. "I'm wiry! Don't mess with me. Let them bring it on!” But toughness is a demonstrable quality, not a mere assertion. Obama's campaigning tends to emphasize the fact that he's right, not the fact that he's tough. After that applause line, for instance, he blasted McCain's position on Iraq for being wrong. In the coming weeks, however, Obama will have plenty of opportunities to prove his mettle. The Clinton campaign, having learned that going negative works, will certainly "bring it on." Its fervent hope is that Obama will refuse to throw it back.