If the junior United States senator from Illinois—Barack Obama—is seeking guidance from the life of Illinois’ most famous politician in his quest for the presidency, replicating Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War “knockout blow” is the wrong place to look. Instead, it is the Civil War’s “terrible math” that is a better guide for this particular moment.
These thoughts have been prompted—in case you were wondering—by the questions immediately following the Pennsylvania Democratic primary: first from the camp of Hillary Clinton, then echoed by many in the media, of why can’t Barack Obama deliver a “knockout blow” to get Ms. Clinton out of the race and sew up the Democratic Party presidential nomination?
A return to that question in a moment. But first, the Civil War.
During that bloody, four-year conflict, Mr. Lincoln became famous for his impatience with the reluctance of some Union commanders to take out the Confederate Army in one great stroke. When General George McClellan dawdled in Virginia, drilling the Army of the Potomac and calling for more material and reinforcements instead of launching an attack against the Army of Northern Virginia, Mr. Lincoln sent him a note asking that, if Mr. McClellan had no actual plans for using the army, could not the President borrow it for a few days to do some attacking on his own. When General George Meade failed to follow up on the great Gettysburg victory by pursuing General Robert E. Lee and breaking up the eastern Confederate army before it could retreat back across the Potomac into Virginia, Mr. Lincoln famously fretted and fumed that Mr. Meade had let Mr. Lee get away, prolonging the war. And finally, when the Confederate lines broke at Petersburg and the Army of Northern Virginia fled west, union cavalry forces under General Philip Sheridan in hot pursuit, Mr. Lincoln sent what is probably the most famous presidential command in history to Commanding General Ulysses Grant. “Gen. Sheridan says, ‘If the thing be pressed I think that Lee will surrender.’” Mr. Lincoln wrote. “Let the thing be pressed.”
But there was, actually, no “knockout blow” in the Civil War, not Gettysburg, nor the capture of Vicksburg or Atlanta, or even of Richmond itself. Instead, what probably won the war for the North was Mr. Lincoln’s selection of Mr. Grant as commander, and Mr. Grant’s belief in the “terrible math” of the war. The Union had more money, more firepower, and more manpower to draw on than did the Confederacy. If the Union commander was not afraid to trade that blood and treasure, even up, battle after battle, with Mr. Lee and the other Confederate generals, the Confederacy would eventually run out of all its resources, and would be bled dry. All that was needed was a Union commander with the steely nerves to play out that terrible hand.
Comparisons between war and political campaigns can be—and usually are—overblown. But if we acknowledge the fact that nothing—absolutely nothing—actually compares with the death and destruction of war, Mr. Obama currently finds himself in a position similar to Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Grant. If he has the steel and the nerve to play out his current hand, the electoral math works absolutely in his favor, and the Democratic nomination is his. He can only lose it if he makes a mistake, and one of those mistakes can be succumbing to the siren call that he is lacking, somehow, if he cannot take out Hillary Clinton with a “knockout blow.”
The question—why can’t Barack Obama deliver a knockout blow to the campaign of Hillary Clinton—is, in fact, a silly one, with an easy answer.
Six months ago, Hillary Clinton was the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party in the 2008 presidential race. She was a fierce and formidable politician in her own right as well as part of the most formidable husband-and-wife political team of our generation, a popular sitting United States senator of one of the most populous states of the union, with a powerful national campaign machine built up over more than a decade. Almost every national commentator believed that the Democratic nomination was hers to lose, but she did not lose it. Instead, she was passed on the run by an equally formidable politician, Barack Obama, whose politics and personality tapped into the prevailing mood of the country.
This is, perhaps, the most important point to remember in understanding why Mr. Obama cannot supply that “knockout blow.” Hillary Clinton did not run a bad campaign that forced her supporters to look for another candidate, such as, say, former Senator Fred Thompson did on the Republican side. Instead, Ms. Clinton’s problem was that Mr. Obama simply ran a better campaign. But Ms. Clinton retained a large and loyal core of supporters, and for the most part, nothing she has done in the campaign has shaken their faith in her. She was a formidable candidate in January. She remains a formidable candidate today. To ask why Barack Obama can’t immediately knock her out of the race is like asking why the old Boston Celtics teams of Larry Bird and Robert Parish couldn’t knock out the old Los Angeles Lakers teams of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar in fewer than seven games, or why those old Showtime Lakers teams couldn’t do the same to the Celtics. They couldn’t knock these teams out sooner, friends, because they were playing against good teams.
But there are other dynamics at work in this political season.
The goal of both Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton is not just to win the Democratic nomination, but to win in November over the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona. To do this, both Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton have the same challenge—they must defeat their Democratic rival in such a way that they maintain their own constituency while not alienating too much of their Democratic rival’s constituency. But while it is the same challenge, because of the differences in their political personalities, Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton have distinctly different paths to reach their goal.
Ms. Clinton is known as a combative, partisan politician whose campaign is built on the premise that she is tough enough to take on the Republicans as well as take on America’s enemies in the world. When she goes on the attack against Mr. Obama, she is entirely within character. Such attacks energize her supporters, and even supporters of Mr. Obama have to admit—sometimes grudgingly, and sometimes only to themselves—that Ms. Clinton is acting completely within character.
Mr. Obama’s campaign is built upon an entirely different premise. He comes to us as a healer, someone who promises to stop the old partisan bickering that has marked the Bush-Clinton-Bush years, to bridge the old gaps that have divided races and parties in this country. That is both his politics and his personality. When Mr. Obama goes on the attack against Ms. Clinton—something he would need to do to perform this “knockout blow”—it completely reverses the foundation of his campaign. For every voter he turned away from Ms. Clinton by such attacks, Mr. Obama would probably lose one of his own supporters who had been drawn to him by his promise to end “politics as usual.” Mr. Obama could win the Democratic nomination under those circumstances, but lose the enthusiasm that propelled him to those early primary wins, confusing his supporters and eventually leading the way to a possible defeat in the general election in the fall.
So what should Mr. Obama do?
Trust in the “terrible math” of the current state of the Democratic primary campaign. And his supporters should trust that “terrible math” with him.
I have not crunched the numbers myself, but I have faith in the prevailing opinion that Mr. Obama is far enough ahead in delegates committed during the primary and caucus process that Ms. Clinton must have an extraordinary run of victories to catch him by the end of the primary season. Because the Democratic Party operates on a proportional apportionment of delegates—not winner take all—I have seen some estimates that Ms. Clinton would have to win all of the upcoming primaries by a 65-35 margin to catch Mr. Obama. Ms. Clinton was not able to win by such a margin in states such as Pennsylvania that were largely favorable to her; there is no one who seriously believes that, absent some great mistake by Mr. Obama, she will be able to do so in Indiana, North Carolina, Oregon, and the other primaries yet to come.
That is the “terrible math” of the Democratic primary end game. If Mr. Obama runs out the string, even, with Ms. Clinton, he wins. He does not have to knock her out to win the Democratic nomination. It is she who has to knock him out for her to prevail.
But there is another reason why Mr. Obama should continue to play out the winning hand he has dealt himself, rather than risking everything for some “knockout blow.”
If Ms. Clinton is forced out of the Democratic race by anything other than the will of the Democratic primary voters, it will be a nasty, bloody withdrawal from which Mr. Obama will have difficulty recovering in time for the fall campaign. That is true whether Ms. Clinton goes out kicking and screaming, or goes out quietly and with dignity and a sad smile on her face, or goes out promising to support Mr. Obama. If Ms. Clinton’s supporters believe that she was forced out of the campaign, and did not get a fair shot, some number of them will either sit out the general election or go over to Mr. McCain or some third party candidate. And that number could be enough to cost Mr. Obama the presidency.
For Mr. Obama to win in the fall, Ms. Clinton’s supporters must feel that she had a fair chance to win in the spring and summer, and simply came up short. They are loyal supporters, and certainly would be disappointed. But they would be less likely to take that disappointment out on Mr. Obama, if it was widely believed that there was no coming together of Democratic Party elders to force Ms. Clinton out of the race.
So the answer for Mr. Obama in the waning days of the Democratic primary season: Don’t panic. Be himself. The math is with him. And if he is the national healer and the harbinger of a post-partisan politics that his supporters say he is, that is exactly what he will do.