A mere few months ago, John Edwards was painting Barack Obama as a potential tool of the special interests ("Senator Obama has taken more money from the drug companies than anybody"), and as a risk-averse pol who deliberately ducked scores of important votes in the Illinois legislature. But today, all of a sudden, Edwards is saying that Obama is a reformist who will offer "bold leadership" and change the culture of Washington.
The Edwards endorsement is old-style politics as usual; in this time-honored scenario, a vanquished candidate plays the angles and decides it's high time to sing the virtues of the frontrunner, lest he risk being left behind as the train rumbles out of the station. Business is business.
But Hillary Clinton's people, being old-style politicians who clearly understand the conduct of such business, know full well that the Edwards' endorsement of Obama constitutes yet another body blow to Hillary's miniscule prospects. They grasp the political symbolism of this development, as well as its unfortuitous timing:
Edwards is a potential bridge to the populist white working-class voters who remain cool to Obama; however, I stress the word potential, because, as a running mate in 2004, he failed to deliver those voters or even his home state of North Carolina. Far more importantly, at this moment, his endorsement sends a message to the fence-sitting superdelegates that it's time to bring closure to this marathon competition. And it was delivered less than 24 hours after Obama's landslide loss in West Virginia, thereby invading the news cycle that the Clinton people assumed would be dominated by Hillary's victory lap.
It was also clear that the Clinton people were blindsided by Edwards' move; earlier in the day, they were reportedly sending assurances that Edwards intended to remain neutral. After the endorsement went public, they were reduced to uttering rote assurances of their alleged viability (campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe: "This thing is far from over"), even though it's likely that the endorsement will also boost Obama's delegate tally among regular delegates. Edwards won 18 during the primaries, and it's safe to assume that most will now move to Obama; indeed, at least six of Edwards' eight South Carolina delegates appear to be moving already.
Edwards aside, however, I would argue that the bigger symbolic blow to Clinton was delivered yesterday by NARAL Pro-Choice America. It too endorsed Obama, thereby sending the message that even a prominent feminist abortion-rights organization, with strong sisterhood ties to Clinton, believes that her quest is futile. This endorsement is stark evidence that part of her base is beginning to erode. This endorsement is also the first major signal to liberal women that defeating John McCain (and preserving Roe v. Wade) should take precedence.
The Clinton camp was blindsided by this endorsement as well; Hillary sat for a series of broadcast interviews yesterday, fully expecting to preen about West Virginia - and, instead, she had to answer for NARAL. During her chat on NBC, more rote assurances ensured: "Well, obviously, I've - I am dissapointed because of the work I have done for many years...But we're going forward."
When the spin-savvy Clinton team is reduced to such sputterings, it's a fresh sign that the end is nigh.