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Howard's End

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

You can blame John Edwards for a lot of things, but the last thing anyone should be blaming him for is the nomination of Barack Obama. Howard Wolfson, Hillary Clinton's former communications director, made headlines last week when he told ABCNews.com, and anyone else who asked, that Hillary would be the nominee if Edwards had 'fessed up, or been exposed, earlier on. "I believe we would have won Iowa, and Clinton today would therefore have been the nominee," Wolfson said, in a bit of punditry that spurred much discussion among the chattering class.

There are two problems with Wolfson's analysis. The first is that it's almost certainly wrong. The second is that it's totally counterproductive, a disservice not only to Obama, but also to Clinton.

The Wolfson thesis is based on the very questionable premise that all or most of Edwards' supporters in Iowa would have supported Clinton if Edwards were not in the race. But there is no particular reason to think that is so, except for the fact that they were white and working class. In Iowa, both Edwards and Obama ran solidly to Hillary's left. Obama had a stronger field organization than Hillary did; indeed, the state was sufficiently problematic for Hillary from the get-go that there were discussions within the campaign early on about skipping it.

Even more basically, Obama didn't win the nomination because he won Iowa. Certainly, some people thought Iowa might be decisive, but in fact -- as is usually the case with Iowa -- it wasn't. Hillary came back less than a week later and won New Hampshire. Edwards was out of the race entirely by the end of January.

The reason Hillary lost and Obama won was not because of Edwards and Iowa, but because of the extended losing streak that plagued the Clinton campaign between Nevada and Super Tuesday. Her loss of 11 straight, her failure to mount a caucus strategy that would earn her a healthy proportion of the delegates even in the states she lost, cost her the nomination. As even those who are very close to her acknowledge, her campaign did not come together until March 1, and by then, given the delegate totals and the way proportionate representation works, it was too late.

Blame arithmetic. Blame the Democratic Party rules. Blame the failure of the caucus strategy. But John Edwards' girlfriend? I don't think so.

There's another problem, though, with Wolfson's analysis. It may serve him as a pundit -- pundits are supposed to say things that generate talk, that land them in headlines on Drudge and in interviews with lots of newspaper and TV types. He did well for himself with his speculation. But it does not help Hillary or Obama at this point to cast doubt on the outcome of the long primary process, to spin reasons why it should have been different.

Obama is the nominee. Hillary understands that. Bill Clinton understands that. But there are many supporters of both Obama and Hillary who are having trouble putting the past behind them. There are many women who are still angry at the sexism they saw in the campaign, still smarting from the tactics they witnessed or experienced in some of the caucuses. I understand that.

There are also many Obama supporters who are wondering why Hillary stayed in as long as she did, whether her attacks may have weakened Obama after the point where, by their math, she couldn't win the nomination.

It's not that such feelings aren't legitimate. The problem is that the only person who benefits from them is John McCain. And why anyone who supported Hillary or Obama strongly enough to still be angry about the primaries would want to help elect McCain is utterly beyond me. And that includes Howard Wolfson.

It's over, Howard. Time for an end to the fights about who should have won and why.

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