WASHINGTON — Chill out.

More specifically: “We’re going to win this election if we just chill out and let everybody have their say.”

Thus, Bill Clinton’s advice to Democrats who are gnashing their collective teeth over whether the extended struggle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will cause their party to lose an election it once seemed certain to win.

One person who took Clinton’s advice was Obama, who went out of his way last weekend to defend his opponent’s right to stay in the contest. That was a shrewd move since the Clinton campaign is gifted at turning any effort to push her out into (1) a form of sexism, (2) a fiendish plot against her by Washington “insiders” and (3) a way of raising lots of money online.

In any event, the argument about ending the race now is miscast. Even a miraculous intervention by Al Gore and John Edwards would do little to settle the matter. St. Al and St. John are powerless as long as Clinton and Obama want to keep their battle alive. Only one thing will end this brawl, and that is the self-interest of one of the candidates.

For now, Clinton has a strong argument for continuing. Obama leads in delegates but that advantage is not overwhelming. Clinton still has a chance — a pretty good one, according to an analysis posted by Michael Barone on U.S. News & World Report’s Web site — of emerging from the primaries with a lead in the popular vote, though it seems impossible for her to overtake Obama in the delegate count. Clinton’s campaign song has become “Don’t Stop Thinking About the Next Primary.”

For the long run, it is neither sexism nor insiderism to say that unless she sweeps the next contest in Pennsylvania and also primaries in other places such as Indiana and North Carolina, the decision to end the race by dropping out will fall upon Clinton.

But there is a more immediate decision for her to make: As long as she is in the race, how will Clinton choose to win? The Clinton campaign needs to examine not what this fight has done to Obama, but what it is doing to her.

For all Democrats, the worst thing that has happened since January is the tarnishing of the Clinton brand. Clinton haters: Don’t laugh. The truth is that when this whole thing began, the vast majority of Democrats — including Obama supporters — and a fair number of independents had largely positive views of Bill Clinton’s record and Hillary Clinton’s merits.

In light of today’s economic crisis, most Americans look back fondly on the rapid and widely shared growth of the 1990s. What neoconservatives see as a “holiday from history” in foreign policy, most Americans see as a time of peace when the United States was respected in the world, and even rather liked.

And while Bill Clinton’s triangulation (and his scandal) did damage to the Democratic Party, Obama himself has acknowledged that President Clinton was right to pull the party back from “the excesses of the ’60s.” Bill Clinton, Obama told me in an interview last fall, “deserves some credit for breaking with some of those dogmas in the Democratic Party.”

As for Hillary Clinton, nobody doubts her intelligence. Those who know her reject the media-built image of Clinton as a cold, calculating machine. Such a person would not inspire the loyalty she has earned from her partisans. If Obama does win, he will draw on her policies, some of which are better crafted than his own.

Yet much of this has been lost. Bill Clinton’s approach to the South Carolina primary, the Clinton campaign’s effort to ignore everything it once said about the irrelevance of the Florida and Michigan primaries, Hillary Clinton’s willingness to say (or imply) that John McCain is more prepared to be president than Obama — all this and more has created a ferocious backlash against the Clintons. The result is that when the word Clinton crosses their lips, many Democrats sound like Ken Starr, Bob Barr and the late Henry Hyde.

“Chill out” is good advice. Hillary Clinton has every right to keep fighting. But her campaign has suffered from a ricochet effect. Attacks aimed at her opponent and efforts to exaggerate her experience have weakened rather than strengthened her claim to the nomination.

This is obviously a problem for Hillary Clinton herself, but it is also very bad for a Democratic Party that cannot afford to see the entire Clinton legacy discredited.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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