Jun 29, 2008

June 7, 2008: The Taming of the Shrew, Referendum on the Swine, Winning on Points

With the results of last week’s primaries, the long contest has now come to an end with Obama emerging with a clear majority of duly elected delegates. With the votes having been counted in South Dakota and Montana, a rush of Super Delegates pressured by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid began to climb onto the Obama train as it was leaving the station. By mid-week, Obama had clinched the nomination. Today Hillary scheduled a speech before her staff and supporters in which she announced the suspension of her campaign and, albeit belatedly, congratulated Barack on his historical victory.

“She came this close,” wrote Katha Pollit in Nation. “Love her or loathe her, the big story here is Americans saw a woman who was a serious, popular, major-party candidate. Clinton showed herself to be tough, tireless, supersmart and definitely ready to lead on that famous Day One. She raised a ton of money and won 17.5 million votes from men and women. She was exciting, too: she and Obama galvanized voters for six long months—in some early contests, each of them racked up more votes than all the Republican candidates combined. Once the bitterness of the present moment has faded, that’s what people will remember. Because she normalized the concept of a woman running for President, she made it easier for women to run for every office, including the White House. That is one reason women and men of every party and candidate preference, and every ethnicity too, owe Hillary Clinton a standing ovation, even if they can’t stand her.” (1)

Amen. Let us take a moment here and tip our hat to Hillary, and to Barack, for accomplishing what no one thought was possible only a short time ago, making this election cycle, whatever its outcome, truly a transformative political experience.

A year ago, Hillary Clinton stood before America as the once and future Queen; the heir apparent representing a government in waiting. The nomination, if not the Presidency, was hers for the taking. With the backing of Big Bubba and his much feared political machine, with the support of thousands and the ability to raise over 100 million dollars before the first votes were cast in Iowa, with her name recognition, and facing a field of perceived political lightweights, Clinton appeared a lead pipe cinch to capture the nomination. No one expected the contest to go past Super Tuesday. By early February, the common wisdom had it, this race would be over.

No one, it appears, except the young upstart, Barack Obama of Illinois. Blinded perhaps by hubris and, in the end, believing their own press releases, the Clintons quite simply didn’t see Obama coming. It is a cardinal sin in politics to underestimate one’s opponent. As in baseball, where anyone with a bat in their hands is dangerous, events can change suddenly. Many a would-be, odds-on favorite to be President of the United States can attest to that. The history of this republic is littered with the shattered remains of such ambition. Ask President Aaron Burr, Stephen Douglas, George McClellan, Samuel Tilden, William Jennings Bryan, Al Smith, Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, Bob Dole, or Al Gore, not to mention many lesser lights. Barack Obama proved to be a formidable opponent with prodigious powers to inspire crowds, build a first-class political organization, and unparalleled ability to raise money. By the end of last year, the Obama camp began to match the Clintons dollar for dollar, and by early in the primary season began to outstrip the Clinton fund raising ability, outspending her in some states by multiples of 3 and 4 to one. It was a serious mistake compounded by many, many, others.

First was her inability to apologize for voting to give Bush war powers. Instead, we were presented with a long series of rationalizations, in which Hillary justified her vote saying that she wanted to give the President authority in order to make it possible for weapons inspectors to go into Iraq and in order to build a coalition in the United Nations in the event war broke out. While critical of Bush for both his leading the nation into war and his subsequent conduct of the conflict, she always stopped short of admitting mistake. This was, in the wake of a president who famously remarked in 2004 that he couldn’t think of anything — despite the failure to create a single net job in four years, or leading us into the greatest quagmire since Vietnam — that he would do differently. America had seen enough of leadership that cannot bend, cannot change, and cannot admit mistakes. Robert Kennedy, in his time, admitted such mistakes over Vietnam and apologized to the country for his part in leading us into the morass, Hillary couldn’t quite find the words. This gave Barack, as Chris Matthews pointed out on “Hardball,” a huge opening to become the ‘change agent’; to become the vehicle through which disgust with the current state of affairs would best find voice. Openly questioning the value of experience if such experience is leading us unto quagmires, Barack made the most of the Clinton misstep and positioned himself as the more ‘transformative’ candidate in the race.

Secondly, the Clinton campaign, after having lost the mantle of change, failed to develop an adequate campaign theme. The second rule in politics, after never underestimating one’s opponent, is to identify what makes the voting public most anxious and address those concerns. The election is, or rather should be after all, about the ‘people’. So while the country fretted about the emerging debacle in the Middle East, as we watched our standing in the international community dwindle to near nothing, as we witnessed the skyrocketing rise in energy and food prices and the near collapse of the housing market, the fears of the republic were addressed by the Clinton campaign with the slogan “Ready on Day One”. This merely served to beg the question: “Ready to do what?”

Hillary came off the blocks, stressing what her campaign thought to be two salient points: that her gender would automatically make her a ‘transformative’ political figure, breaking through heretofore impenetrable political barriers by definition as she progressed through the primaries. The problem with this strategy was two-fold. First, against a normal field of white males this might have worked, except when confronted with the person of Barack Obama, a man of mixed race. He, too, brought with him such transformative potential by so participating. Secondly, this strategy betrayed a campaign that, thematically at least, told the nation that it wasn’t about America but instead was all about Hillary. It was the perfect ‘Boomer’ gaffe, a genuine reflection of the ‘me’ generation — the Generation of Swine — that had by this election cycle all but worn out its relevance and its welcome. Obama, demonstrating superb political instincts quickly made the election a referendum on the swine, openly calling for an end to the endless food fights which are the products of, “conflicts hatched on college campuses forty years ago.” The result was that by the end of January, Hillary’s campaign had lost its majority black support, and was increasingly forced to rely on older white women — boomers — for both the money and the votes to keep her in the race. Obama had stolen the change issue and become the ‘transformative’ candidate in the race, eclipsing Clinton to such a degree that both Hillary and Bill were out on the hustling, mocking the young Jedi and openly campaigning against the very idea of change itself.

Third, Hillary had failed to surround herself with competent and professional campaign staff and advisers. Millions were paid to consultants who clearly had no idea how to fashion a viable message. In addition, she hired people like Mark Penn who erroneously thought that California was a winner-take-all primary and that winning it would sew up the nomination. Penn is a seedy aging boomer who, when not delving in Democratic Party politics, works as a lobbyist representing foreign governments. He is old enough to know better. One simply has to recall the Democratic Convention of 1972 in which the McGovern forces — which had won California — needed all the votes in order to win the nomination. McGovern had spent the best part of the previous four years reworking party rules eliminating the winner-take-all formula in favor of proportional representation. But California, in 1972, was one of the last states to still have the old rule in effect. The McGovern campaign was compelled to violate the candidate’s own stated position in order to garner all the delegates from the state, but it was made clear that California would have to abandon the way it awarded its delegates and bring their process in line with the national party rules by 1976. California has, therefore, apportioned delegates accordingly for over 30 years now. Mark Penn should have known that and, in the absence of the knowledge of such details, someone on the staff should have questioned him.

This debacle, born by an incomplete understanding of the process, proved to be the ‘Merkle Boner’ of this campaign, for it ended up costing Clinton the nomination. By not understanding the rules and acting accordingly, the campaign was forced to extend itself beyond Super Tuesday, an event — incredibly — for which there were no plans. The Obama camp, acting on the rules and planning for a long war of attrition, out organized the Clintons in caucus states and smaller states with open primaries. By winning enough of the vote in the larger states to stay competitive, Obama, even on Super Tuesday, was able to win more delegates despite losing the big states of New York and California. As the campaign then went through the Midwest and into the heartland, the Clintons discovered, to their dismay, that with each upcoming contest they would be confronted with a massively funded, well-organized opponent who stood waiting for them.

The Clintons were then forced into retreat in what became a long ‘scorched earth’ campaign to increase Obama’s negatives by relentless attack thereby attempting to salvage what diminishing hope remained by demonstrating that he could not win. In the process Hillary discovered her voice and became a formidable campaigner in her own right. But the tone of the campaign only served to further raise her already historically high personal negatives as well. In the end, both candidates staggered to the finish line with Obama outlasting her and winning on points.

In the end, the campaign went, more or less, precisely the way the Obama strategists had hoped and predicted. They knew that they could not take out the Empire with one blow, but that to successfully challenge they would have to win a long, drawn-out war of attrition. Obama demonstrated in the process to not only be an effective speaker, but a man capable of building a first-class professional organization that proved sensitive to addressing the concerns of his audience, as well as utilizing the latest technologies and medium of communications. The Clintons, on the contrary, presented the country with a much more amateurish, tone-deaf, and sluggish enterprise, at times wholly out of step with the nation. She was, perhaps, not the best vessel in which to launch this quest to sail on new political water, but she proved herself more than adequate. Despite entering this contest with the highest personal negatives on record, Hillary nevertheless inspired the nation with her grit and determination, her passion for health care, and her ability to inspire; winning by her count more votes in the primaries than anyone in American history. Obama, recognizing her contribution, said that through her efforts, the lives of his two little daughters have been given greater promise and hope. The life of our daughter as well.


1. Pollit, Katha. “Iron My Skirt’ The Nation June 23, 2008 pg 10

No comments: