What's It All About, Hillary?

By the time Hillary Clinton trounced Barack Obama in West Virginia, she was in a pickle.

Hillary Clinton at a Grafton, W.Va., campaign event.

Hillary Clinton at a Grafton, W.Va., campaign event.

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By the time Hillary Clinton trounced Barack Obama in West Virginia, she was in a pickle: How do you win and prepare to lose at the same time?

After all, nuance is an unnatural act in politics. It's far easier to say you're ready to be commander in chief and he's not. Or that you attract white, blue-collar voters and he doesn't. Even "Shame on you, Barack Obama" has a certain easy ring to it on the campaign trail.

But now this is about something more complex for Clinton. It's about her role in the party and her political future, not to mention the future of the Democratic Party. So a fine touch is in order from a candidate not known for her tonal niceties. After winning West Virginia, Hillary carefully threaded the needle—vowing to fight on (not for herself, mind you, but for those voters who want a "chance to make their voices heard") while pointedly allowing that "I will work my heart out for the nominee of the Democratic Party."

Democrats are trying really hard to understand Clinton. They know it's tough to lose a close race. They know it's been a long, and hard-fought, contest. They have listened when she has told them that only she can beat John McCain. But even those with real sympathy for her understand something else: the math. They believe she's not going to win the nomination.

So they ask: What does Hillary want? Given that Hillary is a Clinton, there is the easy answer: whatever she can get. Imagine the reception at the convention for a contender who has amassed 2,000 delegates, coming in a close second (although she will say first) in the popular vote! Senate majority leader? Done. And why not the vice presidency? Or should Obama lose, she's clearly the truly anointed nominee the next time around. "If she gets to the end of this process standing tall, she gets to give a great speech," says one Democratic strategist. "She becomes the party unifier." But what about the notion that Obama needs to focus more now on a general election strategy than a primary in Puerto Rico? "This isn't about Obama," says one uncommitted superdelegate. "This is about Hillary Clinton."

Clintonites will tell you to stop griping. This has been good for Obama, they say. He has become a better candidate. He knows his weak spots, and he knows what the Republican attacks will be, too, since Clinton has helpfully outlined and road-tested them. As a result of this race, they add, Obama now knows his strategic task: to focus like a laser on the middle class. Thank goodness Hillary Clinton has vetted Barack Obama and pointed his campaign in the right direction.

Parallel universes. Don't expect a thank-you note anytime soon. While McCain concentrates on his general election campaign—courting independent voters, distancing himself from President Bush—Obama is stuck in two parallel universes. First, in the final primaries, against Clinton. Then, in battleground states, against McCain. And while Clinton is playing the good cop (careful not to bash Obama anymore), her surrogates are happy to be the bad cops—pointing out Obama's fatal flaws, including the notion that he can't possibly win the blue-collar voters she has won in those battleground states. Too bad that John Edwards—the original populist in this race—stepped on their story line last week when he endorsed Obama.

So what's next? I'm not sure even Clinton herself really knows. Obviously, she understands her political future depends on how she conducts herself in the next three weeks—and the next six months. Obama will soon announce that he has the majority of pledged delegates in the race and will declare it over. He will keep accumulating superdelegates in a steady, day-by-day trickle. She will fight to have the votes in Florida and Michigan count, so she can at least overtake Obama in the popular vote. The duo will fight, and eventually, there will be some compromise. Obama is likely to give her more delegates once he knows he is certain to win anyway.

Which leads back to the central question: What does Hillary Clinton really want? Always, to win. Move the goal posts, play for time, grind down the enemy. But that part is over, unless Obama gets hit by a meteor or self-destructs. Still, the narrative of Hillary the Fighter continues. That means staying in the ring until the 15th round, winning the prize for endurance and grit. There's only one small problem: She's punching air.