Is it really time to count Clinton out?

In the minds of some political observers, the question isn't if Hillary Clinton should exit the presidential race, but how and when.

By Alex Koppelman
Published February 25, 2008 9:07PM (EST)

In the minds of some influential pundits and observers, Hillary Clinton's campaign is already all but dead and buried. (And, predictably, much of the narrative among those saying this is about Clinton's obstinacy -- the usual meme about Clinton being power hungry and ruthless prevails again, though there's little evidence any of those pushing it have done any reporting to back up their words.)

In the latest issue of Newsweek, Jonathan Alter writes,

If Hillary Clinton wanted a graceful exit, she'd drop out now -- before the March 4 Texas and Ohio primaries -- and endorse Barack Obama ... Imagine if, instead of waiting to be marginalized or forced out, Hillary decided to defy the stereotype we have of her family? Imagine if she drew a distinction between "never quit" as it applies to fighting Kenneth Starr and the Republicans on the one hand, and fellow Democrats on the other? Imagine if she had, well, the imagination for a breathtaking act of political theater that would make her seem the epitome of grace and class and party unity, setting herself up perfectly for 2012 if Obama loses?

The conventional view is that the Clintons approach power the way hard-core gun owners approach a weapon -- they'll give it up only when it's wrenched from their cold, dead fingers. When I floated this idea of her quitting, Hillary aides scoffed that it would never happen. Their Pollyanna-ish assessment of the race offered a glimpse inside the bunker. These are the same loyalists who told Hillary that she was inevitable, that experience was a winning theme, that going negative in a nice state like Iowa would work, that all Super Tuesday caucus states could be written off. The Hillary who swallowed all that will never withdraw.

In his column Monday, Robert Novak wrote,

Wise old heads in the Democratic Party [are] asking this question: Who will tell her that it's over, that she cannot win the presidential nomination and that the sooner she leaves the race, the more it will improve the party's chances of defeating Sen. John McCain in November?

In an ideal though unattainable world, Clinton would have dropped out when it became clear even before Wisconsin that she could not be nominated.

We, however, tend to think Balloon Juice's John Cole makes a good point when he says, "Why should she get out now? She has spent years preparing for this run, has millions of supporters who want her to continue, she still has a shot (albeit a small one, I think) at winning, and I think she owes it to herself and those who have sacrificed so much to get her this close to continue on. Should she lose the next few states and really start to trail badly in delegates, I think she should probably get out, but it should be on her own terms. Trying to pressure her out right now doesn't sit right with me, though. What is so bad about letting the voters have their say?"

It's not as though Clinton is stubbornly holding on without any supporters. She doesn't trail by much in the overall popular vote, and as of the time of this post the Real Clear Politics national poll average shows her just 4.8 percentage points below Obama -- and that appears skewed by an outlying poll that has Obama up 12. Beyond that, let's not forget what happened in the New Hampshire primary. Plenty of people were already ready to dance on Clinton's grave when she came up with a surprise victory in New Hampshire. As Time's Karen Tumulty says, in a blog post cleverly titled "Memo to Myself: Get a Grip,"

Granted, it's hard to find much that is positive for Clinton in the general direction of things. But if there's anything the primary season thus far should have taught all of us, it is to expect the unexpected. With a week and a half left to go before Ohio and Texas, anything could happen. You can bet the Obama campaign understands that, as evidenced by this week's visit by campaign manager David Plouffe to North Carolina -- a state that doesn't hold its primary until May 6.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Alex Koppelman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections Hillary Rodham Clinton War Room