Hillary Clinton's asterisk-heavy victory in Iowa might have been the narrowest of wins for her, but it was arguably the worst of all possible outcomes for the Democratic Party.
As of this writing, the result was a statistical tie, 49.9 percent for Clinton and 49.6 percent for Bernie Sanders. The margin of victory in the delegate count was decided by six coin tosses that "flip truthers" will forever remember as mysteriously biased toward Clinton.
Clinton raced to the podium to declare victory, but the news media will continue to describe it as a tie, probably forever. Sanders' supporters won't even make that concession, bitterly complaining about irregularities and, again, coins that seemed to be in Clinton's pocket, figuratively speaking.
A crushing defeat would have been worse for Clinton, of course. But this wasn't much better. In fact, the nature of this victory will probably bring out the worst in Clinton. If she lost decisively, as she did in Iowa in 2008, she'd have the option of playing the victim. Maybe she'd even cry again, like she did in Portsmouth, N.H., in '08, earning the sympathy vote. Instead, she won Iowa this time. But saying so requires lawyerly qualifications and caveats.
Everyone knows this "win" was nothing to brag about. According to The New York Times, her "advisers said they did not know if a significant staff shakeup was at hand, but they said that the Clintons were disappointed with Monday night's result and wanted to ensure that her organization, political messaging and communications strategy were in better shape for the contests to come." That's not exactly William Wallace in "Braveheart" shouting of victory.
Clinton simply can't go around talking about her "win" in Iowa without seeming ungracious and grasping. Every time she tries, it will, by the very nature of that victory, seem like spin. Already, her supporters are fanning out across cable news overselling the win and reinforcing the sense that Team Clinton is disconnected from reality. Also, any bragging from the Clinton camp will further antagonize Sanders' supporters, many of whom are already quite hostile to Clinton.
But the real loser in all this is the Democratic Party.
The ghost of Eugene McCarthy has hovered over the Democratic race for a year. In 1968, the left-wing senator from Minnesota challenged President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. McCarthy actually lost by a significant margin. But the mere fact that he got 42 percent of the vote against the sitting president was enough to ultimately knock Johnson out of the race and entice Robert F. Kennedy into it.
These are different times, and Clinton isn't an incumbent president. Even so, numerous observers raised the possibility that if Clinton suffered a devastating loss in both Iowa and New Hampshire, it might be enough to entice Vice President Biden, Al Gore, Michael Bloomberg or someone else into the race to save the party from the prospect of a socialist nominee or a fatally flawed Clinton candidacy.
There was never any question in my mind that Clinton will never drop out. Like Richard Gere in "An Officer and a Gentleman," she's got nowhere else to go. But there was some slim possibility that someone else would get in and beat her and Sanders. That won't happen now. She will almost surely go on to lose in New Hampshire. After that, her best hope is to grind out a victory over many months, antagonizing Sanders' supporters, who are disproportionately made up of exactly the kind of young activists Clinton desperately needs to win in November.
The window for a Democratic savior -- if one ever existed -- slammed shut Monday night. The Democrats are stuck with what they've got.