Hillary Clinton’s reference to the Robert F. Kennedy assassination caused a stir. It passed. She apologized, RFK’s son said that it was no big deal, Barack Obama shrugged it off, and smart journalists acknowledged that it was a case study of a media feeding frenzy. At the Politico, John Harris wrote that “Clinton’s error was not in saying something beyond the pale but in saying something that pulled from context would sound as if it were beyond the pale.” In a few days, we’ll hear about it again as we observe the 40th anniversary of RFK’s death. Then the incident will return to limbo, and Clinton will linger in political purgatory.
Despite its brevity, the flap did hurt Clinton. It put her on the defensive just when she most needed to stay on the offensive. So is there any way she can regain a chance at the nomination?
On May 31, the Democratic National Committee’s rules and bylaws committee will vote on whether to seat her delegates from Michigan and Florida. If the committee were to side with Clinton, Obama supporters would explode. Few things in politics cause harder feelings than the idea that one’s opponents have won by trickery. Whereas an Obama nomination would boost black turnout, the anger from a Clinton nomination would depress it. Knowing that such a development could tip some states to John McCain, the committee members may balk at taking Clinton’s side.
Then comes the Puerto Rico primary on June 1. A thin margin or small turnout would deprive her of an important talking point. A lopsided victory with a very large turnout would arguably put her ahead in the overall popular vote count and legitimize her claim to the nomination. The key word is “arguably.” There is no “official” count of the national aggregate tally, which is utterly irrelevant under the law and party rules. Obama supporters would respond with their own numbers. If necessary, they could say that the Puerto Rico’s popular vote should not count in the total since it cannot choose members of the Electoral College. Or they could just drop their insistence on the primacy of the popular vote and say that the winner is the one with the most delegates.
If it got to that point, the debate would make no sense. The whole popular-vote issue is Calvinball, where the “rules” are subject to change by any player at any point without notice.
Whatever happens in the next week, Clinton is reportedly intent on sticking in the race. She may be hoping for two developments, either of which could transform the contest even after the end of primary season.
One is the Big Revelation. Perhaps there is some as-yet-unreported aspect of Obama’s past that could turn millions of Democrats against him. At this stage, though, it is hard to think what it could be. A secret life as a cat burglar? A fling with Ann Coulter? Not likely. Besides, if the Clinton people had such information, they would have used it already. If the Republicans had it, they would save it for the fall campaign.
Clinton’s other hope is the Big Gaffe — a misstatement so enormous as to call Obama’s competence into question. (Think of George Romney’s “brainwashing” or Gerald Ford’s premature liberation of Eastern Europe.) Michelle Malkin and ABC’s Jake Tapper have enumerated many Obama blunders ranging from the silly (a suggestion that there are 57 states) to the serious (confusion about Venezuela’s support for terrorism). So far, however, the mainstream media have yet to emphasize his mistakes.
But the errors keep coming. Obama messes up when he’s tired, and for a young candidate, he gets tired surprisingly often. We can see evidence in David Mendell’s Obama: From Promise to Power, the most comprehensive treatment of the senator’s life. (The volume has received less attention than it deserves. Most Washington insiders do not read books. They scan indexes, and this book does not have one.) Mendell writes (p. 267): “In his presidential run in May 2007, a sleep-deprived Obama would accidentally say that ten thousand people had died in a tornado in Kansas when the actual number was just twelve. That launched a series of news stories about his discipline and stamina. Few humans are as disciplined as Obama, but his stamina can be questionable.”
As the RFK incident shows, Hillary Clinton is also capable of gaffes. She is older than Obama, and probably just as tired. A recent interview revealed that she had never heard of Red Bull. If she wants to win, she ought to develop a taste for the stuff — and hope that Obama doesn’t.
– John J. Pitney, Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.