In the last week, Hillary Clinton cheated to pick up a few more delegates and then gave what sounded for all the world like a victory speech just moments after her opponent mathematically eliminated her. Her cringe-worthy focus on her strengths as a candidate at the very moment of her defeat was all the more remarkable because it coincided with a legitimately historic event in our country’s unhappy struggle with the phantom of “race,” and one might have hoped for more perspective from one who aspires to lead. Senator Clinton’s solipsistic performance tells us plenty about her, but more importantly, I think we now know three important things about the country as a whole.
First, there is apparently not enough low-grade violence among young children. Plato warned long ago that we need to take children’s play very seriously because the attitudes that children take toward the rules of their games are the patterns for their later attitudes toward the laws of the society. Senator Clinton’s repeated attempts to re-score the nomination contest, her absurd (and, one hopes, disingenuous) “Zimbabwe” remark, and her surrogates’ overheated rhetoric last Saturday, all suggest to me that we may be unwisely preventing our children from beating up cheaters as often as they should. Even low-grade violence is, of course, completely out of bounds in adult politics, but that makes it all that much more important to let nature take its course earlier, when the same kid is always saying he wasn’t tagged, or he beat the throw, or he didn’t run out of bounds, or whatever. Maybe little girls don’t stake out and enforce the boundaries of fair play in quite the same way, or maybe they do — perhaps someone in the comments will enlighten me about that. But clearly, no good comes of letting anyone grow up thinking the rules don’t apply to her.
Second, Senator Clinton cannot possibly be Obama’s running mate. This was always a bad idea for many reasons, not least of which is that she embodies so much of the style of politics Obama wants to campaign against. But her unseemly jockeying for the position in the last few weeks has, I hope, ruled out the possibility completely. If she had gone out gracefully and said nothing about the VP spot, matters might be different, but she has (thank goodness) made it impossible for Obama to add her to the ticket without looking like he is caving in to her demands. George Will is surely right to observe that there are other potential running mates who would appeal to Clinton’s supporters without bringing along so much baggage. Indeed, if Howard Fineman’s information is correct, Senator Clinton herself is painfully aware of the ready availability of substitutes. In Plato’s Republic, the guardians reluctantly consent to the rigors of public command because the penalty for abdication is to be ruled by a less capable person. Senator Clinton seems to be reluctant to bow out for fear that her replacement will be successful enough to eclipse her. Shouldn’t that be disqualifying?
Third, the problem of how to arrange the primary calendar needs a new solution. I say this not because I have any concerns about bunching the primaries too early or stretching them over too long a period, but simply because the DNC’s failure to enforce its rules will exacerbate the conflict among all the state committees who, for reasons I do not really understand, all want to vote early in the primary season. Whatever one thinks of the DNC’s delegate-stripping sanction for holding a primary too early, no one can possibly have much confidence that either that rule or a modification thereof will be enforced in 2012 if any candidate can benefit by challenging. And for that matter, it would be foolhardy for any candidate to abstain from campaigning in a state merely because a firm application of the rules would place that state under the DNC’s interdict.
The more I think about this problem with the primary calendar, the more it occurs to me that perhaps the root of the problem is the blurring of the line between a governmental function (like an election) and the internal workings of a purely private association like a political party. I feel this more keenly perhaps because I am unaffiliated with a party and therefore in Maryland I am not eligible to vote for any candidate in either party’s primary. Since I don’t want to be part of either club, I suppose I should not complain that I am excluded from helping them choose their leaders. But on the other hand, as a taxpayer I do help to pay for these rather elaborate proceedings, and even if I don’t resent being denied a ballot, I do resent being forced to pay for the printing, casting, and counting. Why can’t the clubs go off and do that on their own? But that’s another topic, for another day.