Democrats seem intent on nominating Barack Obama, in the face of mounting evidence that Hillary Clinton would be the stronger candidate against John McCain in November. And they only have themselves to blame.
Yes, the Clinton camp made strategic blunders that allowed Obama to score heavily in Republican states where few Democrats vote. But the real culprit is the party's stupid, self-destructive nominating system, which has two major flaws.
First, it was designed to anoint a nominee by early February, far too early in the process. The result: Obama built up an insurmountable lead at a time when he was still largely unblemished, untested and unscrutinized. The past six weeks have brought tougher media coverage, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's tapes, the candidate's ill-considered comments about "bitter" voters and a wave of second thoughts among key groups like union members and white Catholics.
Second, the nominating system was completely incapable of reflecting these shifts. Not only were few states remaining on the calendar, the rules of proportional representation made it almost impossible for Clinton to catch up.
Since Feb. 19, seven states have voted. Clinton has won four — Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island —building up a popular-vote margin of 483,000. Yet her total gain in delegates was exactly five. In Texas, she won by more than 100,000 votes, but because of that state's ridiculous rules, she actually came out five delegates behind.
How can that outcome possibly be fair? How can it possibly benefit the party?
Wait, it gets worse. Obama built up sizable margins in small states that Clinton was foolish enough to concede. His delegate advantage in Idaho, Kansas and Louisiana — three states that will never vote Democratic — was a total of 38. By contrast, Clinton handily won three large swing states — Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio. And yet, because of party rules, her combined marginal gain amounted to 28 delegates.
How can it make sense for Idaho, Kansas and Louisiana to have a bigger impact on choosing the Democratic nominee than Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio? Add in the exclusion of Florida and Michigan, two crucial states that favor Clinton, and there's only one word for the Democrats' system: crazy. And Republicans are gleeful.
Three months ago, they were convinced that Clinton was the easier candidate to beat, and she's hardly an ideal choice, not when more than half of all voters tell ABC pollsters they don't like or trust her. But many GOP insiders now see her as a tougher, more tenacious rival, and the latest polls support that judgment.
The Associated Press-Ipsos survey gives Clinton a 50 percent to 41 percent edge over McCain, while Obama ties his Republican rival. As GOP pollster Steve Lombardo told the AP: "This just reinforces the sentiment that a lot of Republican strategists are having right now — that Clinton might actually be the more formidable fall candidate for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that Obama can't seem to get his footing back."
One of those strategists, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, added that Obama "is by any definition very liberal, to the left of Hillary Clinton, in a center-right country. That is very, very helpful to us." Already Republican candidates in North Carolina and Louisiana are running ads linking Democrats to Obama and his "very liberal" policies. And that's only the first trickle in a tidal wave to come.
Obama can make some strong counterarguments. While Clinton might be the better candidate in traditional swing battlegrounds, he can "expand the map" by bringing in new voters, mainly young people and blacks, and making the Democrats competitive in red states like Colorado and Virginia.
The election map, however, has been starkly static during the Bush years, with only three small states switching sides between 2000 and 2004. Winning Ohio with Clinton is a safer bet for Democrats than capturing Colorado and Virginia with Obama.
So why don't Democratic leaders and superdelegates face these facts and shift to Clinton? One reason is race. It's true, as Obama says, that being black in America has hardly been a political asset, given the fact that he's the only African-American in the U.S. Senate.
But at this time, in this party, being black is an enormous asset. Given America's long, torturous path toward racial justice, many Democrats simply cannot imagine denying the nomination to the first serious African-American candidate for president.
From a moral perspective, that's a noble judgment. From a political perspective, it could cost Democrats the White House.
Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.