If this campaign goes on much longer, what will be left of Hillary Clinton?
A woman uniformly described by her close friends as genuine, principled and sane has been reduced to citing the timing of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination as a reason to stay in the race -- an argument that is ungenuine, unprincipled and insane. She vows to keep pushing, perhaps all the way to the convention in August. What manner of disintegration is yet to come?
For anyone who missed it, Clinton was pleading her cause before the editorial board of the Sioux Falls, S.D., Argus Leader on Friday. Rejecting calls to drop out because her chances of winning have become so slight, she said the following: "My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. You know I just, I don't understand it."
The point isn't whether you take Clinton at her word that she didn't actually mean to suggest that someone -- guess who? -- might be assassinated. The point is: Whoa, where did that come from?
Setting aside for the moment the ugliness of Clinton's remark, just try to make it hold together. Clinton's basic argument is that attempts to push her out of the race are hasty and premature, since the nomination sometimes isn't decided until June. She cites two election years, 1968 and 1992, as evidence -- but neither is relevant to 2008 because the campaign calendar has been changed.
In 1968, the Democratic race kicked off with the New Hampshire primary on March 12; when Robert Kennedy was killed, the campaign was not quite three months old. In 1992, the first contest was the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 10; by the beginning of June, candidates had been battling for about 3 1/2 months -- and it was clear that Bill Clinton would be the nominee, though he hadn't technically wrapped it up.
This year, the Iowa caucuses were held on Jan. 3, the earliest date ever. Other states scrambled to move their contests up in the calendar as well. When June arrives, the candidates will have been slogging through primaries and caucuses for five full months -- a good deal longer than in those earlier campaign cycles.
So Clinton's disturbing remark wasn't wishful thinking -- as far as I know (to quote Clinton herself, when asked earlier this year about false rumors that her opponent Barack Obama is a Muslim). Clearly, it wasn't logical thinking. It can only have been magical thinking, albeit not the happy-magic kind.
Clinton has always claimed to be the cold-eyed realist in the race, and at one point maybe she was. Increasingly, though, her words and actions reflect the kind of thinking that animates myths and fairy tales: Maybe a sudden and powerful storm will scatter my enemy's ships. Maybe a strapping woodsman will come along and save the day.
Clinton has poured more than $11 million of her own money into the campaign, with no guarantee of ever getting it back. She has changed slogans and themes the way Obama changes his ties. She has been the first major-party presidential candidate in memory to tout her appeal to white voters. She has abandoned any pretense of consistency, inventing new rationales for continuing her candidacy and new yardsticks for measuring its success whenever the old rationales and yardsticks begin to favor Obama.
It could be that any presidential campaign requires a measure of blind faith. But there's a difference between having faith in a dream and being lost in a delusion. The former suggests inner strength; the latter, an inner meltdown.
What Clinton's evocation of RFK suggests isn't that she had some tactical reason for speaking the unspeakable but that she and her closest advisers can't stop running and rerunning through their minds the most far-fetched scenarios, no matter how absurd or even obscene. She gives the impression of having spent long nights convincing herself that the stars really might still align for her -- that something can still happen to make the Democratic Party realize how foolish it has been.
Clinton campaigns as if she knows she will leave some Democrats with bad feelings. That's the Clinton way: Ask forgiveness, not permission. But every day, as more superdelegates trickle to Obama's side, it becomes a surer bet that she will not win. She and her family enjoy good health and fabulous wealth. They'll be fine -- unless, while losing this race for the nomination, Hillary Clinton also loses her soul.