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In The Clinton Bunker

How fitting that, on the night Barack Obama finally claimed the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton delivered her non-concession speech from a concrete bunker. To reach the Baruch College gymnasium where Hillary spoke with such surprising defiance her supporters had to descend two flights below street level. The thick subterranean walls blocked out cell phone and BlackBerry signals, and no televisions were provided in the main event hall, thereby insulating Hillary’s cheering supporters (intentionally, some theorized) from the dispiriting events unfolding at the Xcel Center in Minneapolis.

In the bunker there exists a different reality. In the bunker, Hillary is the winner: of the popular vote, of a series of big swing states, of the authentic American vote. In the bunker, Hillary is introduced by the indefatiguable Terry McAuliffe as "the next President of the United States!" When asked about the reality outside the bunker—that Obama supporters were in a minor rage over Hillary’s speech-- McAuliffe looked at me incredulously. “Tonight was Hillary’s night!” he exclaimed. “We won tonight! We won in South Dakota! We keep winning!”

And so Hillary is embarking on yet another listening tour. She is asking her determined followers—like the one here wearing a “REAL MEN vote Hillary” pin—what she should do next. The kabuki listening tour is a hoary old Clinton device. When Bill Clinton ran for re-election as governor in 1990, he promised Arkansans not to run for president before his term had ended. Two years later, he was touring the state, asking for their “permission” to break his pledge. As luck would have it, Bill got the answer he was looking for.

And so will Hillary. Attending an event like tonight’s helps to explain how Hillary carries on in the face of it all. She spends her days surrounded by people who believe in her passionately--who "grab my hand or grip my arm, to look me in my eyes and tell me, don’t quit, keep fighting," as she put it in a campaign email tonight--and all the moreso the more hopeless her cause seems. These people will undoubtedly tell her to carry on. That much was clear from the chant of “Denver! Denver!” which came up tonight, and which drew no strong rebuke.

But in reality, it’s hard to imagine Hillary taking her claim to the nomination all the way to the convention. She may feel defiant, and perhaps is even ‘getting back’ at Obama, in some sense, for perceived slights against her. (This week Bill Clinton said he believes Obama “gets other people to slime her.” And one Clintonite tonight ruefully recalled for me the way Obama smothered her May 13 West Virginia victory by rolling out his endorsement from John Edwards, and also the general-election oriented “victory lap” he took in Iowa after her win in Kentucky a week later.) Or she may be trying to exercise leverage for some hidden goal, like the settling of her campaign debt. Most likely, after 16 years as a party leader, she feels entitled to relinquish the stage on her own terms, at a time of her own choosing.

Who knows when that time will come. In the press filing center tonight the weary hacks, bathed in a grim fluorescent glare, gathered round a pair of giant TV screens and watched as Obama declared himself the Democratic nominee. After that historical moment, I strolled back into the hall where Hillary had just spoken. She and Bill were still there, working the crowd, with perhaps a couple hundred committed supporters jostling to shake their hands, give them gifts, urge her not to quit. Over the PA system blared a song with the refrain, “this is our country, this is our country.” Down in the bunker, it always will be.

--Michael Crowley