Barack Obama made history in becoming the first African-American to lead a national party ticket. But the coverage is all about Hillary Clinton, what she wants and whether she's being generous enough to Obama in recognizing his victory. Watching campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe hail Clinton as the next president even as Obama crossed the finish line in delegates Tuesday evening was a surreal experience. The best thing to say about the preternaturally optimistic McAuliffe is he can't help himself. There weren't any pesky television monitors mounted on the wall or even adequate cell-phone reception to intrude on the Clinton fantasy in a setting that appeared more like an underground bunker than a hotel ballroom.
She did run an extraordinarily close race, and if the Democrats had the same winner-take-all rules as the Republicans, she'd be the nominee. If Obama hadn't outorganized her in small caucus states like Idaho, which the Democrats have no hope of winning in November, he wouldn't be the nominee. There are plenty of "ifs" to go around, and Clinton has made history as the first woman to get this close to the prize. But her demands for respect and recognition on behalf of the nearly 18 million people who voted for her cannot become the dominant storyline—not if the Democrats want to win in November.
The truly magnanimous thing would be for Clinton to award her delegates to Obama, no strings attached. But because she is carrying the hopes and dreams of women voters in particular, she may want to keep them and have her name placed in nomination on the convention floor. That could be harmful to party unity, says Mark Siegel, a former executive director of the Democratic Party. In the ritual roll call, all the states she won would laud her in typical party-activist fashion with over-the-top rhetoric, turning the evening into her show and in effect sticking it to Obama.
Another pitfall for Democrats is the emotion generated on behalf of the fallen Clinton. How much is too much? Obama's people would be wise to schedule her convention speech after the roll call for vice president, says Siegel. He recalls 1964, the first convention he attended, when Lyndon Johnson had Bobby Kennedy's speech moved from before the veep's vote until after—for fear there would be a stampede to Kennedy. Assuming Obama denies Clinton the No. 2 spot, lingering resentment among her supporters could erupt at the convention. In 2000, the Gore campaign tried in vain to minimize Bill Clinton's role in the convention, agreeing after extensive negotiation to have him arrive in the hall via an underground walkway. The walk was televised and Clinton's Hollywood pals choreographed it for maximum impact. Clinton stole the headlines, but he was a sitting president. Not to be too brutal, but Hillary is an also-ran.
She counted on the superdelegates to rescue her candidacy—people like Jerome Wiley Segovia, an at-large superdelegate from Virginia who had two private audiences with Clinton, each lasting 30 minutes. Born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Paraguay, he had organized Latinos for Howard Dean in 2004 and rose quickly in the party when Dean became chairman.* Still, he had a hard time believing he warranted such special attention from Clinton, and he agonized over his choice for president. He leaned at first to Obama but after meeting with Clinton and watching her superior performance in the primaries with Hispanic voters, he found himself drawn to her.
But Segovia didn't say anything publicly. Maybe it was because he is a member of the Democratic Party's Rules and Bylaws Committee, and he wanted to fairly assess the arguments made by each of the candidates on the seating of the disputed Florida and Michigan delegations. Maybe it was the Isaac Asimov science-fiction story he remembered reading as a child, "The Franchise." First published in 1955, it's about a fictional computer called Multivac that poses a series of questions to a single citizen to determine the outcome of an election that then doesn't have to be held. Segovia identified with the burden of a lone citizen choosing. When he Googled "The Franchise" to refresh his memory, he discovered that Asimov set it in the year 2008. "The hair on my neck stood up," he said. A Sunday television appearance identified Segovia as an undeclared superdelegate. "But not for long," he confided once the camera was off. The following day, a press release announced his support for Obama, one in a steady stream that would give Obama the magic number to secure the nomination before the polls closed in the last two primaries.
Segovia says he had no choice. The race was over for Clinton, and he was heeding the call of party leaders for superdelegates to make their wishes known. He dreaded making the phone call to Harold Ickes, Clinton's delegate counter. Maybe he'd be lucky and get voice mail.
*This article has been modified from the original. Jerome Wiley Segovia was not born in Paraguay, as originally reported, but born in Washington, D.C.