For years, Bill and Hillary Clinton treated the Democratic National Committee and party activists as extensions of their White House ambitions, pawns in a game of success and survival.
She may pay a high price for their selfishness soon.
Top Democrats, including some inside Hillary Clinton’s campaign, say many party leaders — the so-called superdelegates — won’t hesitate to ditch the former New York senator for Barack Obama if her political problems persist. Their loyalty to the first couple is built on shaky ground.
“If (Barack) Obama continues to win …. the whole raison d’etre for her campaign falls apart and we’ll see people running from her campaign likes rats on a ship,” said Democratic strategist Jim Duffy, who is not aligned with either campaign.
The rats started looking for clear waters when Obama won Iowa, narrowly lost New Hampshire and trounced Clinton in South Carolina before holding his own in last week’s Super Tuesday contests. He won Virginia’s primary Tuesday and stood to claim Maryland and the District of Columbia to extend his consecutive win streak to eight.
Obama has won 21 of 33 contests, earning the majority of delegates awarded on the basis of election results. The remaining 796 delegates are elected officials and party leaders whose votes are not tied to state primaries or caucuses; thus, they are dubbed “superdelegates.”
And they are not all super fans of the Clintons.
Some are labor leaders still angry that Bill Clinton championed the North American Free Trade Agreement as part of his centrist agenda.
Some are social activists who lobbied unsuccessfully to get him to veto welfare reform legislation, a talking point for his 1996 re-election campaign.
Some served in Congress when the Clintons dismissed their advice on health care reform in 1993. Some called her a bully at the time.
Some are DNC members who saw the party committee weakened under the Clintons and watched President Bush use the White House to build up the Republican National Committee.
Some are senators who had to defend Clinton for lying to the country about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Some are allies of former Vice President Al Gore who still believe the Lewinsky scandal cost him the presidency in 2000.
Some are House members (or former House members) who still blame Clinton for Republicans seizing control of the House in 1994.
Some are donors who paid for the Clintons’ campaigns and his presidential library.
Some are folks who owe the Clintons a favor but still feel betrayed or taken for granted. Could that be why Bill Richardson, a former U.N. secretary and energy secretary in the Clinton administration, refused to endorse her even after an angry call from the former president? “What,” Bill Clinton reportedly asked Richardson, “isn’t two Cabinet posts enough?”
And some just want something new. They appreciate the fact that Clinton was a successful president and his wife was an able partner, but they never loved the couple as much as they feared them.
Never count the Clintons out. They are brilliant politicians who defied conventional wisdom countless times in Arkansas and Washington. But time is running out.
A senior Clinton adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said the campaign feels the New York senator needs to quickly change the dynamic, perhaps by forcing Obama into a poor debate performance this month. That’s grasping at straws, but the adviser said he can’t see any other way that her campaign will be sustainable after losing 10 in a row.
The fear inside the Clinton camp is that Obama will win Hawaii and Wisconsin next week and head into the March 4 contests for Ohio and Texas with a 10-race winning streak. Her poll numbers will drop in Texas and Ohio, Clinton aides fear, and party leaders will start hankering for an end to the fight.
Clinton should find little comfort in the fact that she has secured 242 superdelegates to Obama’s 160.
“I would make the assumption that the … superdelegates she has now are the Clintons’ loyal base. A superdelegate who is uncommitted today is clearly going to wait and see how this plays out. She’s at her zenith now,” Duffy said. “Whatever political capital or IOUs that exist, she’s already collected.”
Few Democrats wants to cross the Clintons when they’re on top. But how many are willing to stand by them when they’re down?
Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press for nearly 20 years. On Deadline is an occasional column.