Senator John McCain is truly the comeback kid. His campaign was given up for lost amid management changes and lack of funds just three months ago. Yet he clinched the Republican nomination on March 4th with decisive victories in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont. It’s a remarkable recovery.
But Senator McCain won more than the GOP nomination Tuesday night. He got a present from the Democrats, too. With Senator Hillary Clinton holding on to win Texas and Ohio, along with Rhode Island, she’s in the race for the long haul. She’ll continue to fight for the nomination past the Pennsylvania primary in seven weeks and no doubt continue on through Puerto Rico in June. For the first time in decades, the Democratic nominee may not be known until the convention itself. And that’s good news for Senator McCain because Senator Clinton has no qualms about running a negative campaign — especially when it works.
Think about the alternative. If in addition to winning Vermont, Senator Barack Obama had won in Texas and Ohio, there’s a fair chance Senator Clinton would have conceded the nomination. The general election would be underway. Instead, he’ll be engaged in an increasingly nasty fight with a very tough opponent. Senator Clinton has shown a willingness to go negative against Senator Obama in ways that undermine his ability to win in November (This, of course, assumes he’ll be nominee. I think he will be as he’s likely to go into the Democratic convention in Denver with more pledged delegates than Senator Clinton. It’s important to note that while Senator Clinton won three-out-four states Tuesday night, it appears she gained little if any ground in the delegate count).
Here’s just one example of Senator McCain’s second victory Tuesday night. Senator Clinton is attacking Senator Obama as being unprepared to be America’s Commander-in-Chief. The capabilities of the candidates is fair game. And if Senator Clinton was focusing on bolstering her claim to be better prepared to be Commander-in-Chief than Senator Obama, that would be fair and fine. But she’s crossed a dangerous line by implying that Senator Obama is unprepared. The fact is, every time she tears Senator Obama down instead of building herself up, she helps the GOP.
Senator Obama has demonstrated the capacity to strike back. (If there’s any doubt, just think back to the South Carolina debate). The danger is that he too will cross the line and begin tearing down Senator Clinton. Again, a result that gladdens the heart of Senator McCain and his supporters. A vicious Democratic race helps the Republicans. And from their point of view, the nastier the better.
There is a silver lining here. Senator Clinton is attacking Senator Obama in the same manner Senator McCain will. Over the next couple of months we’ll have the opportunity to see how well Senator Obama can play — and win — at hardball politics. If he handles it well now, he’ll be that much better prepared for the general election. If he can’t overcome Senator Clinton’s attacks, he shouldn’t be the nominee.
At the same time, the Democratic fracas will keep attention on Senators Clinton and Obama and away from Senator McCain. Attention matters in campaigns and the Democratic candidates will have plenty of it. They’ll work in substantial attacks on President Bush and Senator McCain between those aimed at one another. And while Senator McCain won’t be completely out of the picture, he won’t be front and center, either.
Of course, he doesn’t need to be. All he needs to do is watch the Democrats and take notes. Silver linings are nice, but the Republicans are delighted to see the dark clouds on the Democrats’ horizon.