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Does Clinton Want Obama To Lose?


Last week, the Atlantic's Matthew Yglesias suggested that Hillary Clinton may want Barack Obama to lose the general election. The Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum, an Obama supporter who often defends Clinton, replies, "she's not rooting for John McCain and she's not secretly plotting Barack Obama's downfall."

Who's right?

Obviously, it's impossible to know for sure either way, since it's a question of motive. I think Clinton's political interests clearly militate toward a harsh campaign against Obama. Her only chance of winning is to disqualify him as a general election candidate, giving the superdelegates no chance but to contravene the elected delegates, which they are otherwise reluctant to do. This also serves her interests because if Obama loses, she would be the front-runner in 2012. (Drum asserts, "It's either 2008 or nothing for Hillary," but he doesn't say why, and the assertion seems wrong on it's face -- she won't be too old in 2012, her Democratic fanbase wil remain intact, and her interest in the presidency will presumably be undiminished.)

Now, is Clinton actively thinking along these lines? Like I said, you can't know. Even if she's thinking in selfless terms, I'm not certain she would regard a John McCain victory over Obama as a total disaster. Senators tend to be very clubby and place enormous weight on paying dues. Clinton is said to consider Obama unworthy of the presidency, and indeed has said that McCain is ready to be commander-in-chief and he is not. She may not think a McCain presidency would be much worse for the country than an Obama presidency. I definitely suspect her chief strategist, Mark Penn, would prefer a McCain presidency. Penn is right-of-center on foreign policy and economics. His loyalty to liberalism is extremely tenuous.

But this is speculation. An easier question to answer is, How much does Clinton value her own interests versus those of the Democratic Party? And here the answer is very clear: Clinton is acting as if she doesn't care about the Democratic Party's interests at all, except insofar as they coincide with her own. Her continued campaign is significantly damaging Obama's general election prospects, and this would perhaps be defensible if she had a strong chance at the nomination, but she doesn't. As Politico recently reported, "One important Clinton adviser estimated to Politico privately that she has no more than a 10 percent chance of winning her race against Barack Obama, an appraisal that was echoed by other operatives."

To inflict serious damage on the likely nominee in order to pursue a one-in-ten chance of securing the nomination is, ipso facto, an act of extreme selfishness. Whether she sees the damage to Obama's prospects as a feature or a bug is interesting but beside the point.

--Jonathan Chait