LOS ANGELES--There they go again. Democrats have contrived a nominating contest that even Rube Goldberg would have considered too convoluted, too dysfunctional and too improbable to name as his own. The happiest people in the country right now are Hillary Clinton and Rush Limbaugh--Clinton, because she has survived, and Limbaugh, because he's eager for the contest to go on so Barack Obama can be "bloodied up." Talk about a vast and unexpected conspiracy.

Oh, yes, and John McCain is chuckling, too. His obligatory meeting with President Bush on Wednesday produced videotape far more likely to be used by Democrats than by Republicans, given Bush's standing as this era's Herbert Hoover.

But the McCain news was eclipsed by stories about Democratic hand-wringing, learned explanations of the Democrats' exquisitely intricate "nominating process," and speculation about what nasty things Obama would need to say about Clinton to counteract the nasty things she's saying about him.

The quotation of the week came from Clinton adviser Harold Ickes. "Too much is yet unknown about Senator Obama," he said during a Clinton campaign conference call on Wednesday. Now that raises fascinating philosophical issues we have not pondered since the philosopher Donald Rumsfeld instructed us that while there are "known knowns," there are also "unknown unknowns," those we "do not know we don't know."

Where do Ickes' comments fit into the Rumsfeld Uncertainty Principle? At what point will there be enough known about Obama to satisfy Ickes? Exactly what is unknown about the senator that so bothers Ickes? I guess he can't know.

The easy thing for Democrats to do is to blame their rules. No party in human history has been as rules-obsessed as the Democrats have been for the last three decades or so. You would assume that a party that thinks so much about rules would have pondered the practical impact of their regulations and systems on winning a general election. But they apparently never thought of the unknown unknowns.

The party has three problems. Its excruciatingly proportional system of delegate selection is so fair to the losers of primaries that no primary winner can ever get a big bounce in convention delegates, thus the problem both Obama and Clinton now face in assembling a majority.

Second, an absolutely maniacal dispute over when each state should vote means that the delegations from Florida and Michigan are now illegitimate. Clinton claims them, having won primaries that all the candidates agreed not to contest. Democrats know that they can't just seat the disputed Clinton delegates, yet they must have delegations from these two crucial states. Please, guys, schedule fresh primaries, fast.

And then there are the superdelegates, the established politicians who are supposed to know how to pick winners. But who is the winner between Obama and Clinton?

Here is where the problem gets really serious. Clinton has shown that she is willing to say anything necessary about Obama to bring him down, which is why Limbaugh is so happy. "Look, half the country already hates Hillary," he told his listeners on Monday. "But nobody hates Obama yet. Hillary is going to be the one to have to bloody him up politically...It's about winning, folks."

Indeed it is. And Obama, faced with the opportunity to drive Clinton from the race on Tuesday, just couldn't get tough enough. He started hitting Clinton harder after the Texas and Ohio results were in, but that was too late.

Think of where this leaves the Democrats: The success of Clinton's tough anti-media, anti-Obama campaign means that Obama will now have to get just as rough on her. All the incentives are for Democrats to pound each other between now and the April 22 Pennsylvania primary. They will either ignore John McCain or, worse, build him up as a formidable threat that one of them is too weak to handle.

Not since 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt dispatched Hoover, has the country been so ready to elect a new Democratic president. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll completed before this week's Indecision Tuesday primaries, Obama had a 12-point lead over McCain while Clinton led by six.

Will Obama and Clinton spend the next several weeks (or the next five months until the convention) working hard to destroy each other, in the process giving McCain a fighting chance? I guess that's what you can expect from a party so committed to fairness.


By E.J. Dionne, Jr.