Reports Tuesday indicated that Sen. Clinton, D-N.Y., was finally ready to cede defeat at the end of the long Democratic primary contest to her rival, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
Previously, Clinton had resolutely refused to bite the bullet, that Obama out-thought her, out-organized her and, with the owner of his rhetorical set-piece speeches, out-spoke her through the entire campaign.
Clinton should have won: She had the name, the early lead, the name recognition, the funding and the institutionalized support within the Democratic Party. And despite all of Obama's skill and her own self-inflicted wounds, she still managed to win the Democratic primaries in most of the major states, thereby staking out a strong claim to her party's vice presidential slot.
Obama clearly recognized this, as well as the need for a unified Democratic Party in the fall, when he magnanimously adopted inclusive rhetoric a couple of weeks ago and generously praised Clinton.
Clinton's response, however, was perhaps the ultimate public boner in a long, messy campaign that has been full of it from both leading Dem candidates. She claimed she had to stay in the race in case anything unexpected happened, referring to the fate of Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968.
RFK, of course, was assassinated the same night he won the California primary that would have propelled him to a probable claim on the Democratic presidential nomination in Chicago that fateful summer. The remark was widely seen as exceptionally distasteful and, at its worst, almost a wish that some extremist attack Obama.
Clinton, in fact, should have pulled out of the race weeks ago after she lost decisively to Obama in the Oregon primary, and only scraped an extremely narrow victory against him in Indiana.
For every day and week that Clinton remained in the campaign without making her peace with Obama weakened his otherwise excellent prospects in his fall campaign against the almost certain Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Similar long, "spoiler" primary campaigns by former California Gov. Ronald Reagan against Republican President Gerald Ford in 1976, by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., against Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1980, and by GOP insurgent Pat Buchanan against President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1992 doomed the efforts of all three incumbent presidents to win their re-election bids.
Clinton has finally made the magnanimous and wise choice to end her own race. She should follow it through by gracefully going out to campaign wholeheartedly and selflessly for Obama in the fall. This should be the case, even if Obama now decides not to choose her as his running mate.
Of course, if Clinton can convince Obama of her loyalty and he does still choose her as his vice presidential partner, this would maximize Democratic chances in the fall by healing the rift that the campaign opened between the feminists and working-class, blue-collar voters and rural Democrats who stuck with Clinton, and the African-American voters, young Hispanics and white middle-class and intellectuals who went for Obama.
Even if Clinton is not on the ticket, she desperately needs to restore her credentials as a responsible Democratic Party leader and loyalist. The fact that Sen. Edward Kennedy, the party's venerable liberal standard-bearer in the U.S. Senate for more than 40 years, has now embarked upon his fateful closing battle with brain cancer, ironically gives Clinton a golden opportunity to step into the shoes, not of Obama or of Robert Kennedy, but of Teddy, the last of the Kennedy brothers himself.
For Clinton indisputably has been an excellent, even outstanding senator for New York over the past eight years. Whether the Dems win or lose come November -- and they would have to act even more like Democrats than usual to throw away the huge momentum they already enjoy this year -- the party will need a new liberal leader in the Senate.
Clinton is the natural candidate for the job. Taking up that banner would not even require her to relinquish her own presidential ambitions: She is still young enough to run in 2012 or 2016, if opportunities offer themselves. But in the meantime, she could continue to serve in a magnified version of the public role in which she has enjoyed the most success, effectiveness and public appreciation -- as a leading figure in the Senate, and as Teddy Kennedy's heir.
Clinton has gifts of determination, clarity, drive and exceptional intelligence that are all too lacking in U.S. public life. Her Senate seat is assured for at least another four years, whatever happens in the national presidential campaign between now and November. She has everything to gain by burying her ambition and making her peace with Obama. Her choice should be clear. Party loyalty, enlightened self-interest and the good of her party and her country all dictate it. The end of her 2008 presidential campaign can then also be the start of the best and brightest era of her long public career.
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