Clinton is balancing a range of considerations: her bank account; her political future and the party’s; her need to win back Obama’s supporters, particularly African-Americans; and her need to keep faith with voters in her own (nearly) half of the party, many of whom have grown to dislike her rival.
And so her options range from swift and gracious (although time is running out on that one) to the political version of Custer’s last stand: taking a losing hand to the Democratic National Convention in August. Each has its benefits and its drawbacks, but together they’re what’s left of Clinton’s options.
1) Never Say Die: There’s no rule that Clinton has to drop out just because she can’t win. The loser’s road to the August Democratic National Convention is a humiliating, unlikely path — she’d be broke, and she'd have to sit by and watch as her supporters defected, one by one, to the likely winner. On the other hand, the National Weather Service estimates that there’s a 1 in 2.8 million chance that Obama (or anyone else) will be struck by lightning in the next three months.
And hey, it’s working for Ron Paul.
2) Extract a Job: Clinton still has leverage. Every day she’s in the race, she reminds the media of Obama’s weaknesses with some voters and drives what threatens to become a self-fulfilling narrative about his inability to connect to working-class white voters. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, is roaming rural America, stoking the same resentments Republicans hope to use against Obama in the fall.
It’s a kind of political protection racket, and she can try to force Obama to offer her something to make it stop — a spot on the ticket, a Cabinet post or maybe just allegiance to her vision of health care reform. More remotely, she could seek the promise of Obama’s support in the 2010 New York governor’s race if the incumbent, David Paterson, doesn’t seek reelection.
The downside of this racket, however, is that the longer it goes on, and the more leverage she builds, the more it threatens to damage Clinton — and at a hale 60, she doesn’t seem quite ready to write off her future in national politics.
3) Cash Out: Some in Clinton’s inner circle — and, by some accounts, both Clintons — flatly believe Obama can’t win in November. If they really believe it, there’s no use extracting anything from him but money; who needs a key role in an administration that’s not going to exist? And she needs it: Clinton has loaned her campaign more than $11 million and owes a similar sum to vendors, including the sometimes-litigious Mark Penn. Clinton’s implicit threat would be the same, but in this variation of the end game, Clinton would press Obama for fundraising help to retire her mountain of debt, then campaign for him hard enough that nobody can blame her for his inevitable defeat.
4) Kicking and Screaming: Sometimes, it takes a silver-haired party figure to tell the candidate it’s over. In this case, however, the two most powerful figures in the Democratic Party are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
But there are other powerful voices whose public and private calls could force Clinton from the race, even against her will. Among them are those belonging to former Vice President Al Gore; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.); Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.); and Clinton’s own senior staff.
And, of course, there’s the ultimate silver-haired Democratic icon: Clinon's husband, who has, it should be said, shown no inclination to pull her off the stump or abandon the stage himself.
5) Racial Meltdown: Key African-American supporters such as Rep. Charles B. Rangel, the African-American dean of New York’s congressional delegation, have stood by her. But if she’s more than a thorn in the side of the de facto first black Democratic nominee, that could change. Defections from black supporters such as Rangel and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (Ohio) would threaten Clinton with the mantle of racial division, anathema to her husband’s legacy and career poison in American — and particularly Democratic — politics.
6) Unconditional surrender: It’s Obama’s party now, and Hillary has to live in it. There’s no pretending that — if he’s elected in November — the junior senator from New York will have any real leverage over the president of the United States, no matter what private deal she thinks she’s cut. So win his gratitude, and that of his supporters, by withdrawing cleanly and quickly, and working hard for his election.