Is it finally time for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to give up? After Tuesday’s North Carolina and Indiana primaries, Sen. Barack Obama has added to his virtually insurmountable lead in delegates and the popular vote, but Clinton’s still hanging in there.
Depending on your political preferences, she’s like the Energizer Bunny … or Rocky … or the zombies in “Night of the Living Dead.”
I know, I know, Clinton has a right to stay in the race. In fact, the issue of her “rights” has become the dominant framework within which her supporters defend her continued candidacy. In early March, after 11 straight Obama wins, Clinton superdelegate Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California denounced calls for Clinton to drop out, asserting that “she has every right to stay in the race if she chooses to do so.”
Now, her supporters lose few opportunities to remind us that Clinton enjoys a God-given right to stay in the Democratic nominating race.
Even Ralph Nader has jumped to defend Clinton’s “rights.” “Listen to your own inner citizen First Amendment voice,” he urged her. “This is America. Just like every other citizen, you have a right to run. Whenever you like. For as long as you like.”
The Obama camp seemed unable to buck this rhetorical framework. Top surrogates hastily forswore any effort to persuade Clinton to leave the race.
But how did the question of whether Clinton should drop out of the Democratic race turn into a question of whether she has a “right” to keep running? As far as I can tell, no one — not in the media, not in the Obama camp, not on the Republican side — has questioned Clinton’s “right” to stay in the race. What many have wondered is whether Clinton is right to stay in the race.
That’s “right,” as in “sensible” and “responsible” — not “rights,” as in “I can do as I darn well please.” With Clinton’s prospects of victory in the nominating contest near zero — and poll data suggesting that the bitter, protracted contest poses real dangers for Democrats come November — it’s a fair issue for the party and the media to raise.
Of course, Clinton supporters aren’t the only people who sometimes have trouble distinguishing between what they have a right to do and what’s right. As Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon observed in her 1993 book, “Rights Talk,” critics from Tocqueville on have noticed the uniquely American “tendency to speak of what’s important to us in terms of rights.”
There’s nothing wrong with rights, of course — but as Glendon notes, too often the “language of responsibility” is “missing” from our discourse.
Tell an American he shouldn’t do something, and odds are he’ll respond by insisting that it’s his “right” to do it, regardless of how pointless, destructive, offensive or downright stupid it may be. Say that one-time Obama mentor the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. should keep his provocative views to himself for a while, and someone’s sure to howl: The reverend has every right to give speeches at the National Press Club!
Think of it like this: Clinton could decide to court voters by dressing as a giant chicken and promising an XBox 360 to every American. She has a right to do that. But it would still be really stupid.
Much of the time, “rights” arguments are red herrings, designed to keep you from seeing real issues: Will Clinton hurt the Democratic Party if she continues a divisive race?
Worse, framing absolutely everything in terms of rights risks creating a boy-who-cried-wolf situation. When every squabble leads people to squawk about their threatened rights, we tune out. Then, when serious threats to rights come along — attacks on habeas corpus, for instance — who’s gonna notice, or care?
So Clinton — and all the rest of us — should feel free to do as Nader advises: “Listen to your own inner citizen First Amendment voice.”
But sometimes, if you listen carefully, you just might hear that voice urging you to get a grip — and do the right thing.
Rosa Brooks is a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.