Before we dive into this, let me say what this is not. It's not any kind of a gaffe, or any kind of a "gotcha" moment. It's my interpretation of a journalist's interpretation of some conversations he's had with Hillary Clinton and her close advisers. The journalist is Mark Halperin, who by most accounts is fairly close with the Clintons, even if he can sometimes lapse into douchebaggery. The interview is with Jane Skinner, who is a host on Ed Rendell's favorite network.
Per TNR, with an assist to TPM, Halperin's comments are below. I've provided both the video and a transcript of the critical passage of 3-4 minutes of discussion in the middle of the interview.
SKINNER: What is the gist of her argument [for remaining in the race]?
HALPERIN: Well, she's not much interested in what Obama supporters, journalists, or even neutral Democrats think. She believes -- and she told me and in talking to her advisers, the strong sense I get is -- she believes not just she'd be a better President than Barack Obama -- she thinks Obama's going to lose to McCain. She thinks McCain thinks that too. What she wants to do is try to prove that case. What's I think a little bit, uh, galling or frustrating to her is that she knows people are going to blame her -- that if she continues to fight, Obama loses, people are going to blame her for Obama losing. She thinks Obama's going to lose anyway, so her argument is she's got to stop Obama from being the nominee. That's the mindset at least that I got from her and from talking to her people.
SKINNER: And how is she making the case particularly to the superdelegates -- is it, just don't take a chance on him?
HALPERIN: Well, it's electability. She can't say -- the impression I got from her and again from talking to others around her -- she can't say anything like, anything more than just a small fraction of he case she'd like to make, because some of it's too sensitive. But the heart of the argument is about electability. It's not about past performances, who won caucuses and primaries -- she'd like to argue, in some sensitive areas more than she'd like, more than she is able, that Obama can't win. Everyone's sort of projecting forward -- Howard Dean says it should end by July, some people -- Obama yesterday suggested perhaps it should end by June, after the voting's done -- what she's trying to do is go step by step and the next step up, in a big way, is Pennsylvania. What she's hoping, although she wouldn't say this to me, I tried to press her on it -- is that the exit poll that Fox and others do in Pennsylvania show that white voters are turning against Obama in Pennsylvania, even more than Ohio. Now, that is the biggest challenge to getting elected President as a Democrat is winning enough of the white vote. She hopes to show, perhaps based on what's happened with Reverand Wright, perhaps based on Obama's appeal in Pennsylvania, she hopes to be able that to superdelegates: 'look at what happened on Ohio, look at what happened in Pennsylvania, this guy can't win'. That's the mindset, that's the argument.
SKINNER: [She] wants to have the evidence of it. Does time I guess, she thinks is on her side because maybe she's waiting for another shoe to drop, another skeleton from the closet, another Reverand Wright to surface?
HALPERIN: What I like to say Jane is another shoe to come out of the closet, sort of mix those two. That I think -- look, that's got to be part of her calculation. I should say, as I try to any time I talk about this in any format -- Obama is heavily favored, winning those early contests has given him an impregnable lead amongst the su -- the elected delegates. People like Pat Leahy, people like Howard Dean, people like Nancy Pelosi are waiting for what they believe is inevitable -- the voting ends, he's ahead in elected delegates, the superdelegates go to him in big enough numbers, in order to take this away from Hillary Clinton and have Obama win. But, her way of winning is to have a sequence of things. Win maybe seven of the remaining ten contests, do well among key constituencies -- including white voters, although it's politically incorrect to talk about it in polite company sometimes -- and then, keep Obama from getting enough superdelegates to get a majority, take it to the convention.
Halperin's interpretation, in a nutshell, is that Hillary's argument is that the Democrats need to nominate her, because the black guy can't win. This is based on direct conversations with Hillary as well as her advisers -- although, as Halperin is careful to note, she wasn't willing to clarify the argument beyond a certain point when he pressed her on it.
Of course, while Hillary is canny enough not to make this argument explicitly, that hasn't stopped some of her surrogates. Again, Mr. Ed:
HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell, one of Hillary Rodham Clinton's most visible supporters, said some white Pennsylvanians are likely to vote against her rival Barack Obama because he is black.
"You've got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African American candidate," Rendell told the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in remarks that appeared in yesterday's paper.
To buttress his point, Rendell cited his 2006 reelection campaign, in which he defeated Republican challenger Lynn Swann, the former Pittsburgh Steelers star, by a margin of more than 60 percent to less than 40 percent.
"I believe, looking at the returns in my election, that had Lynn Swann been the identical candidate that he was - well-spoken, charismatic, good-looking - but white instead of black, instead of winning by 22 points, I would have won by 17 or so," he said. "And that [attitude] exists. But on the other hand, that is counterbalanced by Obama's ability to bring new voters into the electoral pool."
And our old favorite, Mark Penn. The following, again, is my transcription:
PENN: Look, we believe the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue goes right through the state of Pennsylvania, and if Barack Obama can't win there, how can he win the general election. I mean, Barack Obama isn't passing the Commander-in-Chief test, he isn't passing the steward of the economy test, and it looks like he's saying that he won't pass the Keystone Test. We think this is an incredibly vibrant, important state. It's the remaining state with over 15 electoral votes in the primary calender. Obama has lost 6 of 7 other larger states so far, and it's of particular importance along with Ohio, Florida and Michigan because it's dominated by swing voters who are critical to a Democratic victory in November. [...]
What we've seen also, you know, in the last few primaries is a fundamental shrinking of Senator Obama's base and an expansion of Hillary Clinton's base. I think if you go back and compare the results of the Wisconsin primary and the Maryland primary, with the kind of results you see in Ohio and Texas, we expanded and gained ground, while Senator Obama lost ground among men, among women, among Democrats, among independents, and among Republicans. So the core groups that are absolutely necessary both for victory in the primary and victory in the general election are votes that we've seen shift our way.
We believe fundamentally that [Pennsylvania] provides a very significant test of who can really win the general election. We believe this will again show that Hillary is ready to win, and that Senator Obama really can't win the general election. [...]
REPORTER: Yes, this is Michelle [inaudible]. As a follow-up to Governor Rendell's response, if anyone wants to jump in to an earlier question, Mark Penn said in his opening statement that Obama can't win in the general election. Is this only in the context of a potential loss in Pennsylvania, or do you have other reasons in mind why Obama would be weakened against McCain?
HOWARD WOLFSON: Let me just say [...] Mark did not say that at the top of the call, so, Mark, why don't you reiterate what you did say.
PENN: I think it raises, I think if he can't win Pennsylvania, it raises serious questions about whether he can win a general election. That is a big question, and I think that what I pointed to is that he's got a shrinking base of support in the latest primaries, and turning back on Pennsylvania I think raises serious questions about whether or not, whether or not it continues in the general election.
Penn isn't nearly as explicit as Rendell, but when pressed, he does not back down, and he says Pennsylvania has grander implications as far as "raising serious questions" about Obama's "shrinking base of support". It isn't quite clear what base Penn is referring to -- he cites "men [...] women [...] Democrats [...] independents [...] Republicans", e.g. every voter except for hermaphrodite libertarians, but white voters would be one interpretation, particularly as these remarks were made at just about the time the Reverend Wright story was starting to break.
How much all of this bothers you probably depends on how much you think the Clinton campaign has actively been stoking the racial flames. But if the Clinton argument about electability isn't in some large proportion about race, I'd ask what exactly it is about. They're not really winning an argument based on the polling data (even though Obama's numbers have slipped some) so it would seem that they have to provide a warrant to their claim that Obama can't win. And yet, they've been strangely unwilling to articulate one.