Ever so slowly, the Democratic rivals are dialing it down. When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton addressed their respective supporters last night, each did so with nary an ill word for the other side. One could sense that the Kumbaya phase is finally at hand, that the candidates are poised to observe the rituals of reconciliation.
This was evident not just because of what they said, but because of what they didn't say. Obama, while declaring that he has now clinched a majority of all pledged delegates nationwide (a goal that was attained last night even while losing in Kentucky), he did not seek to rub the news in Clinton's face by annointing himself as the nominee; rather, he said only that his milestone puts him "within reach" of the nomination. He didn't assail Clinton, directly or otherwise, as a symbol of the "old politics"; on the contrary, he seemed to be nominating her for political sainthood ("one of the most formidable candidates to ever seek the office...her courage, her commitment, her perseverance"), as well as for the feminist hall of fame (she has "shattered barriers" for our daughters).
Clinton didn't flatter Obama in similar fashion, or mention him much at all. But at least she didn't intimate, as she has repeatedly in the past, that he's a naif who lacks the tools to be commander in chief. She offered a few rote remarks about her own readiness to lead on Day One, but she quickly pivoted to the theme of being a good Democrat, regardless of the primary season results ("I'll work as hard as I can to elect a Democratic president this fall"), and the need for all Democratic voters to unify ("For the sake of our country, the Democrats must take back the White House...We will come together as a party"). She knew that her big Kentucky win would not dominate the media coverage, that it would be trumped by Obama's pledged-delegate clinching, that it would be checked and balanced by Obama's solid Oregon win, and therefore it would look absurd to talk of a turning tide.
Each had an interest last night in observing the reconciliation rituals. Obama didn't want to convey any sense of triumphalism about his delegate milestone (which would have looked particularly tacky, given his Kentucky shellacking), because he badly desires to draw her supporters to his side, not tick them off. And he knows he will need Clinton's help during the late-spring unification process.
As for Clinton, at one point she did give voice to a few preposterous delusions, such as her claim that "we're winning the popular vote (nationwide)...More people have voted for me than anyone who has ever run for the Democratic nomination." There are only three things wrong with that empty boast: (a) she's counting Michigan, where Obama's name didn't even appear on the ballot, (b) she's counting Florida, where the primary was held early in defiance of party rules, thereby rendering it officially meaningless, (c) she's omitting Obama victories in three caucus states, including Iowa, that never released popular vote totals. No wonder delegates are used as the decisive metric for victory.
But she didn't spend much time trying to shift the goalposts; her larger message was that she and Obama "do see eye to eye when it comes to uniting our party." She didn't want to project the image of a sore loser bent on further maligning the near-presumptive nominee and thereby wrecking the party's November prospects. Short of winning the nomination, her first priority is to be seen as a team player who puts the party's interests ahead of her own. Better to aid Obama in the imminent showdown with John McCain than to sulk on the sidelines and risk being blamed for a defeat.
And once Obama finished heaping praise on Hillary Clinton, he focused squarely on McCain, seeking to frame the impending campaign much the way that Bill Clinton defined his winning race in 1992 against incumbent George H. W. Bush - as a contest between change and status quo, as new ideas versus old ideas, as future versus the past. He noted that McCain "arrived in Washington nearly three decades ago," somehow making it sound as if the GOP nominee had first learned to walk during the Paleolithic Age. He charged that McCain was a Bush clone on taxes, health care, and Iraq, whereas he claims to represent bread-and-butter change for working Americans who are worried about getting sick, making ends meet, and losing their houses.
It was a Democratic general-election speech, presumably one that Clinton would be comfortable echoing, and it seemed aimed at several audiences - unpledged superdelegates (obviously), swing-voting independents who are enamored of McCain, and the working-class Democrats who remain strongly resistant to Obama's siren call. The Kentucky exit poll provides fresh evidence of the latter, and the Obama people will clearly need to address that weakness going forward.
They can perhaps take some comfort in the fact that, according to the data geeks at the American National Election Survey (based at the University of Michigan), no more than 10 percent of self-identified Democrats have ultimately defected to the GOP candidate in any presidential election since 1992. They also can perhaps take some comfort in the latest Gallup tracking survey, which reports that a number of key Clinton constituencies are starting to shift to Obama.
But rest assured that they will want to have Clinton herself working those voters; she has, after all, earned the right to be the chief ambassador to roughly 48 percent of the Democratic populace. We'll see what verbal effusions Obama sends her way two weeks hence, after the final primary votes are tallied, in the next phase of the reconciliation rituals. Presumably he won't have to promise to put her face on a coin.
I just noticed this announcement, headlined "Correction" on the bottom of today's New York Times editorial page: