Clinton, backers should put a stop to party disunity

August 12, 2008|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

It's August. The Democratic National Convention starts in two weeks, and the general election is less than 100 days away. The presumptive nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, is stuck in a curiously tight contest with Republican Sen. John McCain, the opponent Mr. Obama needs to be focusing on.

Yet Mr. Obama is still dealing with the last dead-ender supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton. Lately, some of them have been making noise about, well, making noise at the Denver convention.

This is not just a problem for Mr. Obama but also one for Mrs. Clinton, who, to be fair, cannot be held completely responsible for the behavior of some of her more animated supporters. If the old adage about not judging ideas by their adherents is a fair standard, one also cannot indict a candidate based on the behavior of her backers.

On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton has made clear her sense of entitlement to unusual deference and accommodation from the Obama campaign. Some may not like what I have to say next, but it needs to be said: Mrs. Clinton's expectation that Mr. Obama should help her pay down her campaign debts, including money she lent herself in the late stages of the primary in an effort to defeat him, is essentially an electoral shakedown - a form of political extortion, pure and simple.

The request is also an embarrassment to Mrs. Clinton because it means that either (a) she doesn't have the ability to raise the money herself - a difficult task, granted, but not impossible given her celebrity power, or (b) she actually thinks the obligation of the winning candidate is to waste time and energy better spent running for president to instead tap into his own donor network to compensate a vanquished primary foe.

Mrs. Clinton ran a tough campaign - sometimes, in my view, so tough as to border on actions inappropriate for a Democratic primary. Some of her supporters undoubtedly think the same of Mr. Obama: that he played the race card when it suited him, took advantage of a fawning media or was just plain condescending to her. To avoid rehashing recent history, let's just call it a draw by saying both sides at times raised some reasonable complaints and both sides at times affected postures of outsized outrage.

For running a strong campaign, Mrs. Clinton deserves the full measure of respect from Mr. Obama and his supporters. She earned the right to at least serious consideration for, though not quite the right to refusal of, the vice presidential spot. She also absolutely merits the featured Tuesday night speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention. (Incidentally, the slating of her for that night, and her acceptance of that slot, is a tacit admission that she will not be the vice presidential running mate, who traditionally speaks on Wednesday night.) Finally, and if only for the symbolic value of having her forever be remembered as the first female Democrat to have her name officially submitted into nomination for president, granting her that distinction also seems reasonable enough.

What she and her followers did not earn, however, was the right to disrupt the convention or create so much as the perception of disunity - or even worse, actual disunity - in Denver.

On April 24 in this space, I wrote: "Let's be real: The Clintons may do no harm, but they are not going to do everything in their power to help elect Mr. Obama."

Six weeks later, Mrs. Clinton finally bowed out of the primary contest, but it's been two months since that departure. Aside from the verbal endorsement of Mr. Obama she gave that day in her powerful speech from the National Building Museum, can anyone name a single thing she or her husband has done that even remotely looks like doing "everything in their power" to help elect Mr. Obama? Yes, Mrs. Clinton appeared at an event for Mr. Obama last Friday in Las Vegas, and is scheduled for a similar appearance in South Florida next Thursday. But this falls short of full-bore, enthusiastic campaigning.

Old resentments die hard. Just yesterday, Howard Wolfson, Mrs. Clinton's former communications director, told that Mrs. Clinton would have won the Democratic presidential nomination if John Edwards had been caught in his lie about an extramarital affair and forced out of the race last year. Such speculation is, to say the least, not helpful to the cause of party unity.

Mrs. Clinton and her husband are entitled to provide little aid to Mr. Obama. They don't have to like him. But the least she can do is quash the effort of the Hillary dead-enders determined to make a fuss in Denver. She doesn't owe that much to Mr. Obama. She owes it to the party.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is

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