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Clinton And Michigan, A Eulogy

When it comes to arguments over how superdelegates should make up their minds about the Democratic nomination, the Clinton campaign has very little claim to the moral high ground, largely because their arguments have constantly shifted to fit their ever-changing political circumstances. Now I think this pattern is proving to be a major political liability, at least here in Michigan.

For weeks and weeks, the Clinton campaign insisted that it wanted to seat the state's delegation based on the results from the tainted January primary. It was an absurd, virtually indefensible argument. As everybody knows, Obama wasn't even on the ballot. That is why many people, myself included, suggested more than a month ago that Clinton call for a re-vote instead.

The argument had a strong moral element: Why not have a real vote, so the voters could get their say? But for Clinton, at least, it made pragmatic sense, as well.* While she couldn't be sure that she'd win 55 percent of the vote again, staging a new, clearly legitimate vote would still give Clinton a chance to cut into Obama's delegate lead--and, no less important, to pick up some popular votes, maybe a lot of them, giving her a stronger moral claim to the superdelegates' loyalty. 

As far as I can tell, the Clinton campaign didn't start doing that that until relatively recently. (I'm not sure exactly when; the first I heard about it was after the Ohio and Texas contests, early this month.)  I suspect that's because it only recently became clear just how much she needed to pick up 100,000 or more popular votes from Michigan--and pocket the symbolic value of a late victory here. (Previously, I'm guessing, they figured they still had a shot at pulling even in the elected delegate count.)

But having come to the re-vote argument so late and with so much apparent opportunism, Clinton isn't winning a whole lot of sympathy. And that explains what's happened in the last week. Even though Obama is the one who ultimately blocked the new Michigan vote--and even though smart observers like the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder think he did so largely because he didn't think he'd do well--Obama has gotten virtually no grief about it, even locally. When Clinton staged a last-minute visit to Detroit, just to generate outrage, virtually nobody seemed to notice.

If, from day one, Clinton had been calling for a new vote, I think the situation would be different. I imagine Cinton would have been able to put real pressure on Obama--perhaps enough to make his campaign relent. Now it may simply be too late. Clinton probably won't get her Michigan delegates, at least not if they would make any difference. She probabaly won't get her popular votes, either. And her campaign will be at least partly to blame. 

*Edit: Revised for clarity. 

--Jonathan Cohn