He came, he saw, he left empty-handed.
It was probably Bill Clinton’s political swan song in the state that may have mattered most to his presidency. Clinton came to California 70 times during his eight years in the White House. His trip to the California Democratic Party convention on Sunday probably felt like second nature. But this time, he went away empty-handed.
Clinton spoke for nearly an hour to 2,000 people in a packed San Jose convention hall, pushing his wife’s presidential candidacy. More importantly, he met privately beforehand with 15 to 20 uncommitted superdelegates. But when I called around party sources on Monday, it turned out he didn’t win over any of them to Hillary’s side.
Keep in mind that the entire Clinton strategy now is to win with superdelegates. Barring an unforeseen total collapse by the new Democratic frontrunner, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton will end up in June with substantially fewer delegates from the primaries and caucuses than he. The Clintons have to win over at least two-thirds of the 350 uncommitted superdelegates around the country to close the gap with Obama. And since Super Tuesday on February 5, when Obama came from behind to eke out a slender edge in the day’s contests, almost all the superdelegates who’ve declared have gone with Obama.
So this was a big opportunity for the former president, in a state he mined for money and political support throughout the 90s, which went with Hillary on February 5, 51% to 43% over Obama. But it didn’t happen for him.
On Sunday, Christine Pelosi (her mom is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi), one of those uncommitted superdelegates in the meeting with the former president, said: “He talked a little bit about letting the process play out.” Pelosi has said previously that in June she will endorse the leader in delegates won in the primaries and caucuses. Which is almost certainly Obama.
Another superdelegate in the meeting with Bill Clinton said yesterday that it was “convivial, but went nowhere.” Who is he likely to vote for? Obama. But he doesn’t want to irritate the Clintons and their allies before Hillary has played out the string till June.
In his convention speech, Clinton basically pleaded for time for his wife’s campaign to try to get back on top, some way, somehow.
“There is somehow the suggestion that because we are having a vigorous debate about who would be the best president, we are going to weaken this party in the fall. Chill out,” he declared. “We’re going to win this election if we just chill out and let everybody have their say.”
He ran through a litany of policies, reviewed his history with California, and declared that Hillary “is the best candidate I’ve seen in 40 years.” The crowd was attentive and appreciative, but not excited. Former-governor-turned-attorney-general Jerry Brown whipped up more enthusiasm with a speech the day before.
The truth was that the convention was more pro-Obama than pro-Hillary, despite Hillary’s primary win on February 5. (In the chess game of politics, Obama closed a big gap late in California, forcing Hillary to spend more time here than planned — and forcing Bill Clinton to spend the last two days before Super Tuesday campaigning up and down California — while Obama turned his personal attentions elsewhere, which enabled him to win some other states that day.)
The latest public poll, last week’s Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll, shows Barack Obama running stronger in California against John McCain than does Hillary Clinton. In California, it’s Obama 49%, McCain 40. And Clinton 46%, McCain 43%, essentially a dead heat. Obama has a much higher favorable rating in California, 61% to McCain’s 49% and Clinton’s 45%.
The Clinton forces had a sign-waving, cheering claque of about 150 people to whoop it up for the former president. But I was amongst them before and during part of Clinton’s speech, and it was clear that their enthusiasm is wilted from what it had been a year ago when Hillary spoke to the convention.
The Obama forces made an interesting choice, counter-programming the former president in its convention speech slot with San Francisco’s glamorous young district attorney, Kamala Harris. One wag noted that the choice may have disarmed Clinton, with his famous eye for the ladies.
Obama, Harris proclaimed, is “all about the audacity of doing what seemed unimaginable.”
Nevertheless, however audacious Harris and her cohort may be, they didn’t pick up any new superdelegate support, either.
Steve Westly, the former state controller and ex-eBay honcho who is Obama’s California co-chair and national finance co-chair, says he expects to see California’s uncommitted superdelegates start moving after the North Carolina and Indiana primaries on May 6, where Obama is likely to do well.
But Westly and his colleagues — who held a high-energy meeting with 500 Obama activists during the convention — were pleased that Bill Clinton left with nothing for his efforts.
The truth be told, Clinton was probably happy just to come to California and feel some of that old adulation, one more time. And after shlepping around small market Pennsylvania last week, a Saturday night in San Francisco must have seemed just the tonic he needed before driving down to Silicon Valley.
But after, it was back to the proverbial salt mines for the former president. Sunday ended for him with a rally in Medford, Oregon.
He didn’t get any superdelegates there, either.
Bill Bradley is a Pajamas Media correspondent. His PajamasXpress blog is New West Notes.