The Clintons know it's over. The bad news was written all over the Big Dog's face as he stood behind his wife, slack-jawed and weary, as she vowed to continue her fight for the White House. Her narrow win in Indiana coupled with a crushing defeat in North Carolina has made Barack Obama the presumptive nominee—and transformed Hillary into the Democrats' version of Mike Huckabee, the GOP candidate who overstayed his welcome on the campaign trail. The difference is Huckabee was genial throughout, never really attacking John McCain. But Clinton lingers on, only ratcheting up her attacks on Obama and running the risk that she will weaken her fellow Democrat for the fall without advancing any plausible scenario of winning the nomination herself.
She has no choice. Her future in politics and her husband's legacy are entwined with what happens to Obama as he in all likelihood becomes the Democratic nominee. Bill Clinton doesn't want someone as president who doesn't indulge him, and to get elected Obama will need both members of the former First Family. They won't be much use in the fall if they're crushed and defeated. Obama needs to pump her up and empower her so that she can in turn further empower him. That means an elaborate dance on both sides as she campaigns relentlessly in the remaining primaries, all the while coaxing her voters toward the inevitability of his becoming the Democratic nominee.
The rap on the Clintons is that it's all about them. "The Clintons are always there when they need you" is the oft-quoted line that sums up the sentiment. During the Clinton administration Democrats lost control of the House and Senate and took a beating in state houses across the country—suggesting to some an insufficient attention down-ticket races and building the party for the future. Time-worn resentment toward the Clintons about the way they "triangulated" between the two political parties for their own gain is one of the things that kept many of Hillary's colleagues in the Senate from endorsing her for president.
The Senate is a small, exclusive club that operates on personal relationships. Hillary spent years courting her colleagues; Obama, by contrast, barely touched down on Capitol Hill before he started running for president. "For them to decide against the senator they've known the longest and the best and decide for the new guy is a huge message in that tiny universe," says former Michigan senator Don Riegle. "Obama will forgive and forget. It's the nature of the guy. You wouldn't want to get on the elevator going from the Senate subway to the second floor to vote with Hillary if she doesn't win this. She's not going to forgive and forget." The Senate elevator is as big as a medium-size closet, a tight fit for six and infamous back in the day when octogenarian South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond exploited the close quarters for hugs and fanny pinches.
Fourteen sitting Democratic senators have endorsed Obama, one more than gave the nod to Clinton. Two more are reportedly poised to endorse Obama: Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Barbara Boxer of California, which means some 20 senators are keeping their options open, not wanting to antagonize Clinton, the likely loser, who could soon be back in their midst and with more power than before. "It's a profound vote of, if not no confidence, less confidence," says Riegle, a student of the institution after serving three six-year terms. He supports Obama and says Clinton will have to work hard to dispel the negative feelings about the campaign she ran. Some Democrats view Clinton's attacks as a racial mugging. That impression, whether it's fair or not, may cling to Clinton when she tries to resume her political life in this most intimate of institutions.
The Clintons were never about the Democratic Party, and the collapse of health care reform in their first two years cost the party enormously. "In a parliamentary system they would have been gone," says Riegle, who did not run for re-election in '94. Instead they reinvented themselves, and Clinton went on to become the first Democrat elected to a second term since FDR. If Hillary falls short in her bid to reach the White House and settles for Capitol Hill, the way Ted Kennedy did after failing to unseat Jimmy Carter in 1980, she won't have an easy time because of all the grudges she carries and creates—especially if she should seek to become the first woman Senate majority leader. "If any of these big boys in the Senate are afraid of a glare in the elevator, they don't deserve to be there," says a Hillary adviser, pointing out that Clinton sat down with GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham and others who voted to impeach her husband, not to mention conservative press lord Rupert Murdoch and Richard Scaife, who funded the Arkansas Project that accused her of murdering Vince Foster among other atrocities. "If we've learned anything, it's that she's a practical politician," says the adviser. That practicality will likely spur Clinton to use her remaining time in the race to run up the tab for what it will cost Obama to make the party whole.