After Tuesday’s Primaries, Clinton Will Be Last Woman Between Trump and the White House

Gripping California horserace with Sanders overshadows historic choice of first female candidate for the U.S. Presidency.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (L) and Republican  presidential candidate Donald Trump (R).
Reuters

Before the assessments, the speculations and the wild guesses, one should devote this opening paragraph, at the very least, to the momentous historic event about to take place on Tuesday night. For the first time ever, one of America’s two major parties will select a woman as its candidate for the President, in theory at least. For the first time in history, a woman will stand within striking distance of the White House. Most importantly, perhaps, it is a woman who will be the last person who can stop a candidate like Donald Trump, who could change America forever, from taking over the country.

But in a political season that has set new trends in the bizarre, the news networks are poised to present this landmark as a necessary nuisance that must be dealt with before moving on to the melodrama that will follow its wake. And since Hillary Clinton leads Bernie Sanders by a gigantic margin of 27 points in New Jersey, and since polls in the Garden State close hours before others taking part in the last “Super Tuesday” of the primary season, and since Clinton needs only 26 out of New Jersey’s 142 Democratic delegates, the whole thing should be over rather quickly. A little bit after eight PM, Eastern Standard Time, Clinton will be declared the presumptive candidate, history will get just a little respect, and now let’s go to the nail-biting, ratings-rich blood fest that we’ve all been waiting for in California.

Because unlike New Jersey, California promises edge-of-your-seat suspense. What was thought to be a slam dunk for Clinton two weeks ago is now too close to call and too complex to decipher. Clinton’s 10-point lead has diminished to the margin of error. And while projector Nate Silver still gives her an 86 per cent chance of winning, his prediction is laced with warnings, caveats and explanations why a big surprise wouldn’t surprise him at all.

The main question seems to be which of California’s close to eight million registered Democratic voters will actually come out to vote? Will it be Sanders’ enthusiastic newcomers or Clinton’s more experienced veterans? Which will appear in retrospect to have decided the battle: Clinton’s advantage among women or Sanders’ unexpected surge among young Latinos? And which will do more damage: Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War in 2002 or Sanders’ vote against immigration reform in 2007? Will Sanders be hurt by the fact that the academic year has ended and students are off to pursue their pleasures?

More significantly, perhaps: What kind of impact did Clinton’s strong assault last week on Trump’s ability to handle the presidency and the country’s nuclear codes have on voters? Her belligerent speech in San Diego certainly changed the tone of the media and found rare favor among pundits and analysts who have been critical so far of the former Secretary of State’s performance. The speech positioned Clinton as a candidate who is unafraid to lock horns with Trump and to match him insult for insult. It provided a rallying cry for her supporters and shifted focus away from her sometimes-bitter rivalry with Sanders to the general Democratic campaign against Trump. The New York tycoon, for reasons known only to him, has made sure that the media’s attention stays on him.

Trump’s stubborn insistence on repeating his controversial statements about the judge who is biased against him because of his Mexican heritage crossed a red line, even for Republicans who had extended it to accommodate their presumed candidate. Newt Gingrich, otherwise a staunch defender, said on Monday that Trump’s approach could put America on a road “that would destroy it." Rather than pivoting to the moderate center, as the conventional playbook mandates, Trump seems to be doubling down on the bad boy behavior that got him the GOP nomination in the first place. In this regard, one shouldn’t lose sight of the GOP primaries as well: with John Kasich and Ted Cruz still on the ballot in California, a widespread “protest vote” against Trump could humiliate him at his moment of triumph. The latest poll had Trump at only 66 per cent; if it goes much lower, he could face a fiasco.

Clinton, of course, would also be hit by a loss in California. It might not affect her historic achievement, but it will certainly put a damper on the festivities. It would present Clinton as an electorally unsound candidate and it would embolden Sanders, as if he needs encouragement, to continue the fight until the very end. Sanders may do exactly the same if he loses, but his posture would be dramatically different: instead of a powerful spoiler backed by legions of admirers, he will be seen as an annoying has-been who doesn’t realize it’s time to leave the stage. 

A victorious Sanders would have to be pleased and appeased. This would influence the outcome of the expected battles over the Democratic platform, including those pertaining to Israel: if you don’t want to see the party take a much more critical view, pray for a Sanders loss. Such a defeat would weaken his hand and escalate calls for him to concede and quit. The silk gloves would soon come off and the tone could get ugly very quickly. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Sanders would comply, perhaps the opposite. He could hunker down in his bunker and decide to take the party down with him.

History provides an ironic footnote here as well: Tuesday will mark exactly eight years since Clinton made her own concession speech to Barack Obama in 2008. Like Sanders, Clinton waited to the very end, even mentioning rather abhorrently at one point that Robert Kennedy had been assassinated four decades earlier in June, so who knows what will happen. Four days after the final primaries, however, she made a conciliatory concession speech that smoothed over some of the acrimony and bitterness that had accumulated throughout the Democratic campaign. It is remembered for Clinton saying that her supporters had created “18 million cracks” in the glass ceiling keeping women from the top. In her victory speech on Tuesday, she will be able to say that the glass is on the verge of breaking.

Some people who know Sanders and others who are convinced he’s been unduly swept away by the enthusiasm of his groupies are skeptical whether the Vermont Senator will follow suit. He is more likely to keep on pressing the case that the so-called “super delegates” who are not bound by their constituents' preferences can be persuaded to switch allegiances. He will brandish the polls that show him performing better than Clinton against Trump. Most political practitioners, however - such as the super delegates themselves - think that Sanders is falling for an illusion that he himself has created. He is ignoring the fact that Republicans have mostly coddled him up to now so that he can inflict maximum damage on Clinton. By clinging on to his campaign even in the face of his mathematical defeat, many Democrats will come to see him in the same way.

Two major players who may enter the ring to sort things out are Obama and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Both, probably the most popular Democrats around, have tried to avoid taking sides, with Warren succeeding more than Obama. The President has more than hinted that Clinton is more suited to take his place; he can be expected to do so much more vigorously after she is declared the presumptive nominee on Tuesday night. This is no time to foster divisions, Obama will say, when unity against Trump is the hour’s call.

Warren might have more influence on Sanders and, more importantly, on his followers. He will find it difficult to reject Warren’s calls to unite behind Clinton: many of his fans might heed her in his stead. In recent weeks, an even more dramatic scenario has furnished wild rumors and fanciful scenarios: that Clinton would offer Warren the Vice Presidency. Such a move would energize the Democratic base, including Sanders’ core supporters, especially women. It could also be risky: it’s not clear that America is ready for a female president, never mind a dynamic duo of women as numbers one and two.

Though it is only the product of a feverish imagination, here’s how things could go. The ideal time for Clinton to announce the shock appointment of Warren would be on Tuesday night, after New Jersey tallies come in, Clinton is anointed and her victory speech is set up. If Warren will stand beside her at the podium, if both clasp hands in a wave of victory, the gushing TV announcers will forget California, hardly mention Sanders, surrender the stage to the female revolution and give history it’s proper due.