As Clay Davis, my favorite character on The Wire, would say, "sheeeeeeit!"
Yesterday's election results have given me the blues. I was hoping that Barack Obama would knock Hillary Clinton out of the race and lock up the Democratic nomination. Instead, Clinton's big wins in Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island have set us up for seven more weeks of nasty campaigning leading up to the Pennsylvania primary that could so damage both candidates that neither of them has a prayer of defeating John McCain in November.
The last thing this country needs is four more years of exhausted Republican rule like McCain promises. But that may be exactly what we're going to get because the lesson of Clinton's comeback yesterday is that going negative works.
The key to her victory in Ohio was the doubts she raised about Obama's readiness to be commander-in-chief with the now-notorious 3 a.m. commercial. The strategy worked especially well with blue-collar white voters the Democrats need to have any chance of winning back the White House.
So we can expect much more of the same as Clinton pounds home the message that voters who are "hiring the next president" should not settle for a callow naïf whose popularity is based on nothing more than empty oratory. That, of course, is precisely the way McCain and the Republicans will proceed if Obama is the nominee.
Clinton's path to the nomination is to do the Republican's dirty work for them—and make no mistake, she and her husband are willing to do whatever it takes to win the nomination, including destroying the opponent.
If her scorched-earth offensive falls short and Obama becomes the standard-bearer, he will have been weakened severely by her attacks. McCain might be able to recycle her anti-Obama message and ride it to victory.
Shades of Michael Dukakis in 1988.
If, on the other hand, Obama loses, Democrats will face a different and even more incidious threat. His success is based largely on rock-solid support from African Americans and young, well-educated voters of all races who believe that he symbolizes a new era in politics. His campaign is, in some ways, more like a crusade. But precisely because these voters have invested so much emotion in Obama, their support may not be transferable to another candidate.
As Obama himself acknowledged to reporters in February, " I'm confident I will get her voters if I'm the nominee. It's not clear that she would get the voters I got if she were the nominee." Disappointed Obamaniacs could stay home—or even worse cast, misguided protest votes for McCain.
What worries me most is that Obama will start playing into that self-destructive mindset by making some voters think there's no big difference between Clinton and McCain since both are part of the entrenched establishment in Washington. I think he took a dangerous step in that direction in the speech he delivered last night when he charged that "John McCain and Senator Clinton echo each other in dismissing this call for change." He made it sound like the Clinton and McCain were united in opposing him and the movement he ignited.
We've been down this road before, in 1968, when voters convinced themselves that there was no big difference between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. Then, as now, hordes of idealistic voters had been drawn into the process by a great cause, opposition to the Vietnam War. When their champion Robert Kennedy fell to an assassin's bullet, their enthusiasm quickly turned to cynicism and they stayed home in droves or cast meaningless protest votes for candidates like Eldridge Cleaver. I know. I was one of them. And because of voters like me Nixon won an extremely close election. The rest is history.
Like I said, "sheeeeeeit!"
Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.