WASHINGTON — From the beginning, Hillary Clinton has campaigned as if the Democratic nomination were hers by divine right. That’s why she is falling short — and that’s why she should be persuaded to quit now, rather than later, before her majestic sense of entitlement splits the party along racial lines.

If that sounds harsh, look at the argument she made Wednesday, in an interview with USA Today, as to why she should be the nominee instead of Barack Obama. She cited an Associated Press article “that found how Senator Obama’s support … among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again. I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on.”

As a statement of fact, that’s debatable at best. As a rationale for why Democratic Party superdelegates should pick her over Obama, it’s a slap in the face to the party’s most loyal constituency — African-Americans — and a repudiation of principles the party claims to stand for. Here’s what she’s really saying to party leaders: There’s no way that white people are going to vote for the black guy. Come November, you’ll be sorry.

How silly of me. I thought the Democratic Party believed in a colorblind America.

In private conversations last year, several of Clinton’s high-profile African-American supporters made that same argument to me — that America wasn’t “ready” for a black president, that this simple fact doomed Obama to failure, that a Clinton Restoration was the best result that African-Americans could realistically hope for. Polls at the time showed Clinton leading Obama among black voters, a finding that reflected not only Clinton’s greater name recognition but also considerable skepticism about a black candidate’s ability to draw white support.

Obama did prove he could win support from whites, of course, beginning in Iowa. He and Clinton effectively divided the party into demographic constituencies. Among the groups that have tended to vote for Clinton are white voters making less than $50,000 a year; among those who have turned out to vote for Obama are African-Americans, whose doubts about his prospects clearly have been allayed.

Assuming that Obama is the eventual nominee, he will have some work to do in reuniting the party. But there’s no reason to think he won’t succeed — unless Clinton drives a wedge between important elements of the party’s historical coalition.

Lower-income white Democrats may well defect to John McCain in the fall if Obama is the nominee, Clinton is arguing, whereas African-Americans — who have been choosing Obama by 9 to 1 — are going to vote for the Democratic nominee no matter what. Thus, she claims, she can better knit the party back together.

Let’s examine those premises. These are white Democrats we’re talking about, voters who generally share the party’s philosophy. So why would these Democrats refuse to vote for a nominee running on Democratic principles against a self-described conservative Republican? The answer, which Clinton implies but doesn’t quite come out and say, is that Obama is black — and that white people who are not wealthy are irredeemably racist.

The other notion — that Clinton could position herself as some kind of Great White Hope and still expect African-American voters to give her their enthusiastic support in the fall — is just nuts. Obama has already won more Democratic primary contests; within a couple of weeks, he almost certainly will have won more pledged convention delegates and more of the popular vote as well. Only in Camp Clinton does anyone believe that his supporters will be happy if party leaders tell him, in effect, “Nice job, kid, but we can’t give you the nomination because, well, you’re black. White people might not like that.”

Clinton’s sin isn’t racism, it’s arrogance. From the beginning, the Clinton campaign has refused to consider the possibility that Obama’s success was more than a fad. This was supposed to be Clinton’s year, and if Obama was winning primaries, there had to be some reason that had nothing to do with merit. It was because he was black, or because he had better slogans, or because he was a better public speaker, or because he was the media’s darling. This new business about white voters is just the latest story the Clinton campaign is telling itself about the usurper named Obama.

“It’s still early,” Clinton said Wednesday, vowing to fight on. At some level, she seems to believe the nomination is hers. Somebody had better tell her the truth before she burns the house down.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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