Friday, February 15, 2008

Death by a Thousand Cuts

The Clinton Campaign's “death by a thousand cuts” is receiving more and more public scrutiny. The devolution of the campaign from one internal crisis to another, its lack of a consistent message, and its reaction to various setbacks has only added fuel to the fire. A chronology:

Three more primary losses, not even close. Now it's eight in a row. A slide in the national polls. Staff shakeup: soap-opera-watching campaign manager out, deputy out. Bill's former campaign manager, David Wilhelm, jumps for Barack Obama. Josh Green, in a stunning piece that might be called a meticulously reported notebook dump, says, in The Atlantic, that Mrs. Clinton made personnel decisions based only on loyalty, not talent and skill. (There's a lot of that in the Bush White House. The loyalty obsession is never a sign of health.) The Wall Street Journal reports "internal frictions" flaring in the open, with Clinton campaign guru Mark Penn yelling, "Your ad doesn't work!" to ad maker Mandy Grunwald, who fires back, "Oh, it's always the ad, never the message." (This is a classic campaign argument. The problem is almost always the message. Getting the message right requires answering this question: Why are we here? This is the hardest question to answer in politics. Most staffs, and gurus, don't know or can't say.) On a conference call Tuesday morning, Mr. Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, told reporters Mrs. Clinton simply cannot catch up. It is "next to impossible" for her to get past him on pledged delegates, she'd need "a blowout victory" of 20 to 30 points in the coming states, the superdelegates will "ratify" what the voters do. (I wrote in my notes, "not gloating -asserting as fact.") Within the hour Mr. Plouffe's words were headlined on Politico, made Drudge, and became topic one on the evening news shows. Veteran Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier took a stab at an early postmortem in what seemed a long-suppressed blurt: The Clintons always treated party leaders as "an extension of their . . . ambitions," "pawns in a game of success and survival. She may pay a high price for their selfishness soon." He cited party insiders: Superdelegates "won't hesitate to ditch" Mrs. Clinton if her problems persist. To top it all off, Mrs. Clinton has, for 30 years, held deep respect for her husband's political acumen, for his natural, instinctive sense of how to campaign. And he's never let her down. Now he's flat-footed, an oaf lurching from local radio interview to finger-pointing lecture. Where did the golden gut go? How did his gifts abandon him? Abandon her? Her campaign blew through $120 million. How did this happen?

The thing about that paragraph is it could be longer.

The Clinton response? "She awoke each day having to absorb new sentences in a paragraph of woe." But "her response to what from the outside looks like catastrophe? A glassy-eyed insistence that all is well.... Whether or not you wish her well probably determines whether you see it as game face, stubbornness or evidence of mild derangement."

EJ Dionne provides his thoughts on "what happened to Hillary Rodham Clinton?" Last fall, she was the 'inevitable' nominee whose 'machine' would raise scads of cash and push her to an early victory.... But this narrative was flawed from the beginning" and "her campaign has suffered from profound organizational failures."

Clinton has offered experience and some well-thought-out policies. That might be enough in a different year. But when it comes to a larger theme, her campaign has been all over the lot. You can tell a campaign has difficulty establishing a message when its slogans keep changing. In recent weeks, the Clinton campaign has featured one banner after another: "Big Challenges, Real Solutions," "Working for Change, Working for You," "Ready for Change, Ready to Lead" and "Solutions for America." Obama has stuck confidently with the slogan "Change We Can Believe In." Clinton must either get voters to stop believing in the change Obama promises, or make them an alternative Big Offer that they can believe in more.

Hillary Clinton's attempt to define a narrative of her own has been hobbled because her campaign is defined by the rejection of rhetoric. Obama's eloquence and idealism are dismissed as "abstract" and a "fairy tale" in contrast to Clinton's experience and policy substance. It is difficult for a campaign to inspire while using "inspiration" as an epithet. Though it is increasingly unlikely, Clinton may still have a path to the nomination - and what a path it is. She merely has to puncture the balloon of Democratic idealism; sully the character of a good man; feed racial tensions within her party; then eke out a win with the support of unelected superdelegates, thwarting the hopes of millions of new voters who would see an inspiring young man defeated by backroom arm-twisting and arcane party rules. Unlikely - but it would be a fitting contribution to the Clinton legacy of monumental selfishness.

Despite the various opinions on how we’ve arrived at this point, it’s now clear that Hillary Clinton must defeat Barack Obama in both Texas and Ohio next month to survive. And instead of presenting a case for why she is the most experienced and able candidate to bring a different kind of change, she has fallen back on the tired negative attacks of a desperate candidate. The latest - "speeches versus solutions, talk versus action;" "Speeches don't put food on the table. Speeches don't fill up your tank or fill your prescription or do anything about that stack of bills that keeps you up at night;" "I am in the solutions business. My opponent is in the promises business."

In defining the differences between their candidacies, she's clearly chosen the low-road. While sure to grab headlines, it’s probably not the message you want to send to an electorate that’s eager for change, fed up with politics as usual, and hopeful for the future. To the record number of Democrats who’ve turned out in support of Barack Obama (many first-time voters, and many independents and moderate Republicans) or those who are considering doing so, it’s a charge that they’ve all been duped by a candidate that’s all style and no substance. That has to make them feel all warm and fuzzy inside. For those who’ve followed Obama (including those who once complained that he was too “professorial” and "wonkish"), it comes as quite a stretch... and rather insulting. It’s the classic Clintonian self-denial (which has growing Nixon-like qualities)– the “if you’re not with us, you're misguided, and we're going to tear you down until you join us" mindset. It's quite a contrast from a message of hope and unity.

To be an effective statesman and chief executive, a president must garner the support of the American people if he/she hopes to accomplish anything of substance. It’s hard to do that when, in the quest for that presidency, you alienate more and more people every step of the way.

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