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Ticket Replay: The 5 hidden stages of Hillary Clinton's defeat

December 23, 2008 |  9:18 pm

From time to time in the next couple of weeks The Ticket is republishing some of our favorite items from the fascinating 2007-08 election seasons. This one was originally published June 5, 2008:

Since it's pretty clear this morning that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is not going to withdraw from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in the face of Sen. Hillary Clinton's admirably annoying tenacity, it falls to the New York senator to adjust to a harsh political rHillary Clinton campaigns for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination with both hands in Indianapoliseality that a year ago today was absolutely unthinkable:

She lost.

Whatever your personal feelings are toward Clinton -- and the Ticket's Comment boards reveal a rude intensity on both sides -- or toward any of the other losers in either party who gave up the electoral marathon weeks or months ago, running for office like this requires a profound commitment by the candidate, his/her family and those around them who invest up to 20-hour days for very little pay over what now spans nearly two years.

This nation's chief executive weeding-out process is brutal, as it should be to force only the most qualified, savvy, lucky, smart to the top.

But we don't have to bring out the violins for any of the....

...White House wannabes to acknowledge that, political theater and personal ambition aside, these campaigns are personally grueling affairs, as energetic and even joyous as the rallies and speeches seem in the bright lights of the TV cameras.

Like pro hockey teams after a tough game, candidates and their entourages spend a good chunk of many nights moving on to the next city, arriving late and rising early to consult the little printed staff

The logo of the Hillary Clinton for president campaign

schedules slipped under their hotel door that remind them what city they're starting in for that next 18-20 hour day.

Only two people know for certain how long Hillary Clinton has been dreaming, planning, organizing her presidential bid -- eight years, 10, 16, more? Last year she sure looked like she knew victory was inevitable.

And when it starts to slip away, it's even harder. Walter Mondale has said he knew the moment Ronald Reagan made that famous age quip that his campaign would lose. Yet he campaigned on. Likewise, President Bush I has confided that he knew two weeks before election day in 1992 that his was a hopeless cause.

An angry Sen. Hillary Clinton eyes her opponent for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Barack Obama

So when did Hillary Clinton get the first hint? When she kept losing caucuses? When she hadn't wrapped up the super prize by Feb. 5 as envisioned? When the Obama money machine kept churning out millions?

In the last many weeks as Obama's delegate totals moved closer to the magic majority, many have watched in fascination as Clinton seemed to move through the same five stages of grief that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described in "On Death and Dying." Except it was Clinton's campaign and White House dream that was dying.

The first stage is Denial: This isn't happening. How could this be happening when she was to inherit the political mantle of her once-again popular husband, the only Democratic president elected twice since Franklin Delano Roosevelt? How could this Illinois nobody with no credentials and few accomplishments other than a golden tongue move in so easily?

The second stage is Anger: "Shame on you, Barack Obama!" Remember those angry outbursts a few hours after the kissy we're-all-Democrats-in-this-together-it's-an-honor-to-compete-against-Sen.-Obama stuff at the debates?

The third stage is Bargaining: That's less visible to observers, more internal. If only I work harder, things will work out. No one can doubt her determination and grit despite internal campaign turmoil, overspending and controversies with her overpaid consultant who was working both sides of the Colombian trade deal.

And in recent weeks when so many thought her effort was hopeless, she sure didn't show hopelessness. And her loyalists responded to that fighting spirit with overwhelming victories in crucial places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

The fourth stage is Depression: This can manifest itself in many ways, possibly in a stubborn refusal to accept the inevitable delegate math. And so often the Clintons' political careers have been saved by last-minute salvations if only they hung on long enough in the face of what others saw as hopeless adversity.

Gennifer Flowers didn't derail Bill in 1992's New Hampshire primary; he only took second, but declared victory and folks remember him winning. How similar that Hillary was holding what looked like a victory rally in Texas while Obama won some more states elsewhere. Or what was an actual victory rally for herself in Florida, after a vote that wasn't supposed to count.

The same could be said of her Tuesday night speech when so many convinced themselves she would concede despite contrary signals from her aides. So many commentators didn't like her tone. No submission. No contrition. No magnanimity.

She said she was going to take a few days to decide her future path. There's a momentum and life force to major national campaigns. You can't turn off the machine and the candidate's adrenalin and emotional commitment like a light switch. It winds down.

Ex-president Bill Clinton tells critics of his campaigning for his  wife Hillary where to sit

The defeat must sink in.

And besides, what's the rush over a few days? Clearly, in a strange way the victorious Obama camp ends up needing the losing Clintonites much more than they need him.

Which brings us to stage 5, Acceptance: That might have come to her over the next week or so. But Wednesday's pre-dawn joint statement by Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and who's-its, the West Virginia governor, sped up that process. They set a Friday deadline for uncommitted superdelegates to make their calls, which forces Hillary's hand.

Still, she said nothing about surrender in Wednesday morning staff meetings. It wasn't until her afternoon phone call with Congressional colleagues that she, well, accepted their message that it was over. And needed to end quickly. And she made the decision to pull the plug.

Friday she'll have a celebration with some supporters and word will no doubt leak from there that at another Saturday "celebration" (how did that word get in here?), she'll formally suspend her campaign and endorse Obama, as previously promised.

From St. Paul yesterday afternoon, Matt Burns, communications director for the Republican National Convention, fired off an e-mail to the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reporting they'd received numerous calls from Clinton supporters offering to work for McCain.

With up to 40% of Clinton primary voters vowing to exit-pollsters that they'd opt for the GOP over Obama, that's not too surprising.

Nor would it be surprising if somewhere in the recesses of that mind that now publicly accepts her defeat and will officially do so with an Obama endorsement, there resides a residual pocket of hope about the future.

As Jay Leno said in his monologue earlier this week, "The good news is that the whole voting process ended tonight. It's all over as of tonight. The bad news: The 2012 Democratic primaries start on Thursday."

That's today!

Now, the first stage of grieving is Denial....

--Andrew Malcolm

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Photo Credits: Associated Press