Columbus, Ohio – At Hillary Clinton’s post-election party at the Columbus Athenaeum early Tuesday evening, a reporter asked Ohio Governor Ted Strickland whether Clinton would exit the race if she lost Ohio, as some of Barack Obama’s supporters had called for her to do. He responded with a story about Ted Kennedy. Strickland grew increasingly agitated as he explained that his father, who lived into his 90s, never forgave Kennedy for taking his campaign against incumbent president Jimmy Carter all the way to the 1980 Democratic convention, embarrassing the party and, as Strickland tells it, “hand[ing] the election to Ronald Reagan.”
Strickland’s point was that Kennedy, who is supporting Obama, “has no right to tell Hillary Clinton what to do.” But it seemed to be an odd way to defend Clinton’s decision to stay in the race. Clinton and Obama have spent much of the past two weeks trying to do as much damage to each other as possible. If their race goes on, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that John McCain will face a significantly weakened opponent in the fall.
Before it was even clear that she had won Ohio, much less Texas, Clinton supporters like Strickland and former Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe were telling reporters Tuesday evening that she would continue her campaign all the way to the Puerto Rico caucuses in June. “Let them vote!” McAuliffe said, referring to the states and territories with primaries and caucuses remaining. “What do you have against those states?” he demanded that the press explain.
Later, when it was clear that she had won Ohio, Strickland took to the Athenaeum stage and upped the ante. “Let us go to Michigan and Florida!” he shouted, referring to a nascent effort to get those states, which have already voted, to hold an entirely new set of primaries. The Clinton campaign is encouraging the idea; she won both states, but the DNC won’t seat their delegations at the convention because they held early primaries against the committee’s wishes.
When Clinton took the stage, she too portended a convention without a presumptive nominee: “We’re going long, we’re going strong, and we’re going all the way,” she told a crowd of several hundred cheering supporters. “[The remaining states] want their turn to help make history.”
Neither Clinton nor Obama can win enough pledged delegates to secure the nomination before the convention, so their race will last through the summer unless one of them drops out. To understand why this is good news for John McCain, consider the events of the last two weeks, as Obama sought to knock Hillary out of the race for good and Hillary fought to save her campaign: First, Obama distributed a flier in Ohio that misquoted Clinton as saying that the North American Free Trade Agreement had been a “boon” to the economy. Clinton quickly pointed out that the word “boon” was used a newspaper’s characterization of her views; it was not a direct quote. She proceeded to denounce NAFTA — which, incidentally, has been a boon to the economy — prompting a “race to the bottom” between the two candidates that ended with both of them embracing the radical position that the U.S. should pull out of NAFTA unless it can be renegotiated to include some relatively ineffectual labor and environmental requirements.
All this fighting over NAFTA sowed the seeds for the scandal that broke out when a Canadian news organization reported that a top Obama adviser told Canadian government officials that the senator was merely posturing on NAFTA to win votes in Ohio and wouldn’t actually do anything crazy like pull the U.S. out of the agreement. Clinton hammered Obama over the incident, which almost certainly contributed to his large margin of defeat in Ohio; exit polls showed that “eight in 10 Ohio voters said trade deals tend to take jobs away from people in their state.” The NAFTA dispute left one candidate looking hypocritical and the other deeply unrealistic about the nature of the global economy.
Second, Hillary hit Obama with an ad that depicted a ringing crisis phone and suggested that Obama was too inexperienced to be trusted with national-security issues. A source close to the campaign told me at Tuesday night’s event that Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn believes the “red phone ad” made a big difference in Texas, where Clinton won with a narrow margin. Clinton will continue to call Obama’s national-security credentials into question, because her campaign thinks it’s a strategy that works.
The more Clinton attacks Obama on this issue, the better it works out for McCain. McCain’s best issue is national security, and it’s his strongest tie to the conservative base. In addition to his record of service, he has the credibility of being among the first to call for a new strategy in Iraq, and the strategy he advocated is paying dividends. If Obama is the Democrats’ nominee, McCain can point out that some in his own party apparently don’t think he’s qualified to deal with national emergencies. If Clinton beats Obama… well, McCain’s very own “red phone ad” — contrasting his preparedness with hers — would write itself.
The Republican field this time around left many conservatives cold, and the primary season was correspondingly dispiriting, but that’s all over now. A new primary season is about to begin, one in which two formidable Democrats will spend prime campaign resources trying to render each other unelectable. Conservatives might find this one a lot more satisfying to watch.
– Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.