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The Fall of the House of Clinton / The Story (must read)

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The post-mortem

The fall of the House of Clinton

Jun 5th 2008 | WASHINGTON, DC
From The Economist print edition

Hillary Clinton has seen a nomination that was once hers for the taking slip from her grasp. How could it have happened?

AP

THIS time last year it looked as if Hillary Clinton’s path to the Democratic nomination would be a cakewalk. She had the best brand-name in American politics. She controlled the Democratic establishment. She had money to burn and a double-digit lead in the opinion polls. And as the first American woman to have a chance of breaking the presidential glass ceiling, she had a great story to tell.

And Barack Obama? He was a first-term senator with few legislative achievements and a worrying penchant for honesty (in his autobiography he admitted to using marijuana and even cocaine, “when you could afford it”). He knew how to give a good speech. But how could that compare with Mrs Clinton’s assets—a well-oiled political machine and a winning political formula that combined a carefully-calibrated appeal to the centre with hard-edged political tactics?

Today, Mrs Clinton has not only lost the Democratic nomination. She has humiliated herself in the process. She has been forced to lend her campaign more than $11m of her own money. She has cosied up to some of her former persecutors in the “vast right wing conspiracy”, notably Richard Mellon Scaife, a newspaper magnate. She has engaged in phoney populism, calling for a temporary break on petrol taxes, praising “hardworking Americans, white Americans”, vowing to “totally obliterate” Iran and waving the bloody shirt of September 11th. The conservative Weekly Standard praised her as “a feminist form of George Bush”. So how did one of America’s most accomplished politicians turn a cakewalk into a quagmire?

From the first most of her biggest advantages proved to be booby-trapped. Mrs Clinton stood head and shoulders above Mr Obama when it came to experience—she had been one of the two most influential first ladies in American history and had proved to be a diligent senator, a “work-horse, not a show horse”. But Mrs Clinton’s “experience” included her decision to vote in favour of invading Iraq, a decision that was radioactive to many Democrats. And Mr Obama was the first to grasp that this is an election about change, not experience. Americans have had enough of experience in the form of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Seventy per cent of them say America is headed in the wrong direction.

The Clinton machine only exaggerated this problem. Mrs Clinton surrounded herself with familiar faces from her White House years—people like Mark Penn, her chief strategist, Terry McAuliffe, her chief fund-raiser, Howard Wolfson (one of the least helpful spokesmen this newspaper has ever encountered) and, of course, her husband. But these people were all deeply enmeshed in a Washington establishment that most voters despised.

Mr Penn, one of Washington’s most powerful lobbyists, continued to lobby for a free-trade deal even as Mrs Clinton was trying to appeal to blue-collar voters by denouncing free trade. These people also summoned up uncomfortable memories from the 1990s. Did America really want to spend another four, or eight, years watching Mr McAuliffe et al catching flack on behalf of the Clintons? “Everybody in politics lies”, David Geffen, a Hollywood mogul, said last year. But the Clintons “do it with such ease, it’s troubling”.

Bill Clinton was the very embodiment of the Clinton paradox: a huge asset who was also a huge liability. Mr Clinton is a political superstar—a man who left office with a 60% approval rating and a claim to have delivered eight years of peace and prosperity. Most Democrats love him. But he is also a cad and a narcissist.

His presence on the campaign trail reminded voters that Mrs Clinton is hardly a self-made woman—she rose to power on his coat-tails and endured repeated humiliations in the process. It also undercut her claim to executive experience. Mrs Clinton had made a mess of the health-care portfolio that her husband had handed her in 1993. And it raised the question of what Mr Clinton would do in the White House. Would he be an unelected vice-president? And would he re-establish the dysfunctional politics that had characterised the presidency in the 1990s?

You’re out of time

The Clinton machine was too stuck in the 1990s to grasp how the internet was revolutionising political fund-raising. Mrs Clinton built the best fund-raising machine of the 20th century—persuading Democratic fat cats to make the maximum contributions allowable and accumulating a vast treasure trove of money. But Mr Obama trumped her by building the best fund-raising machine of the 21st century.

Mr Obama simultaneously lowered the barrier to entry to Obamaworld and raised expectations of what it meant to be a supporter. Mr Obama’s supporters not only showered him with small donations. They also volunteered their time and enthusiasm. His website was thus a vast social networking site (one of his chief organisers was a founder of Facebook)—a mechanism not just for translating enthusiasm into cash but also for building a community of fired-up supporters. Mr Obama’s small donations proved to be a renewable resource, as supporters could give several times, up to a maximum of $2,300. Mrs Clinton ran out of cash.

The Clinton machine was also too stuck in the 1990s to see how radically the political landscape was changing around them. Here Mr Penn—the campaign strategist who helped to mastermind Bill Clinton’s re-election triumph in 1996—was particularly culpable. Mr Penn underestimated Mr Obama’s appeal. He relied on the techniques that had served him well in 1996—microtargeting small groups of voters (he even published a book during the campaign on “microtrends”) and emphasising Mrs Clinton’s middle-of-the-road credentials. But this was a big-trend election—and the biggest trend of all was changing the status quo in Washington.

These strategic errors probably doomed the campaign from the first. The Clintonites were so confident of an early victory that they spent money like drunken sailors (one of the biggest beneficiaries of all this spending was Mr Penn’s own political consultancy). The campaign was all but bankrupt by late January—though Patti Solis Doyle, the campaign manager, failed to tell her boss the bad news—and the Obama campaign outspent them two or three to one on Super Tuesday, February 5th. The machine was so confident of victory in the big states such as California, Ohio and Pennsylvania that it failed to plan for the smaller caucus states, or for the primaries and caucuses that were to follow immediately afterwards. Mr Obama was thus given free rein to rack up huge victories in places like Virginia. After Super Tuesday, Mr Obama scored a series of 11 wins in a row. Without those, he would never have secured the nomination.

These grand strategic errors were compounded by poor day-to day management. The people who introduced the “war room” to American politics proved to be slow-witted and gaffe-prone. Remember Bill Clinton’s decision to belittle Mr Obama’s victory in South Carolina by pointing out that Jesse Jackson had also won the state? The only logical implication of that was the slur that a black candidate somehow could not win. Or Mrs Clinton’s claim that she dodged sniper fire in Bosnia? The Clinton machine all but fell apart under the pressure of defeat. Rival factions, grouped around Mr Penn and Harold Ickes, were constantly at each other’s throats. Mrs Clinton was forced to sack Mrs Doyle and marginalise Mr Penn.

This chaos left Mrs Clinton without a compelling story to sell to the Democratic electorate. She tried fitfully to co-opt Mr Obama’s “change” message. She alternated between being an iron lady, ready on day one, and a put-upon woman, bullied by mean boys. She reinvented herself as a working-class hero, Rocky in a pantsuit. But this created an impression of slipperiness and opportunism. In some states half of the voters said that Mrs Clinton was not honest.

The chaos also gave the Democratic establishment a chance to ditch the party’s first family. Many Democratic politicians had always disliked the Clintons for handing Congress to the Republicans in 1994 and triangulating their way out of trouble. They were only willing to stick with them as long as they looked like winners. Ted Kennedy’s decision to anoint Mr Obama as the heir to the legacy of Camelot was an important symbolic moment (“this election is about the future, not the past”, he said pointedly.) But even before that a striking number of superdelegates had been unwilling to endorse a woman who was supposed to be the inevitable candidate. The silence of Al Gore, Mr Clinton’s vice-president, spoke volumes.

A near-run thing

The Clinton campaign might well reply that this catalogue of failures ignores the fact that it was a very close run result. Mrs Clinton won almost exactly the same number of votes as Mr Obama (and claims to have won slightly more, though on a fair count she won fractionally less). She won most of the big states. She improved hugely as a campaigner after the reverses of February, and pulled off big victories in the final weeks of the campaign.

But given the scale of her advantages a year ago there is no doubt that the Clinton campaign comprehensively blew it. Mr Obama will now go on to fight the general election with his primary strategy vindicated and his campaign staff intact. Mrs Clinton has big debts and a brand that is badly tarnished.

She faces an uncertain political future. There are still plenty of Democrats who argue for a “dream ticket”. But Mr Obama probably has other ideas—particularly since she publicly speculated about his assassination. Mrs Clinton still has a power-base in the Senate. But she remains a junior figure in an institution with a famously low turnover, surrounded by colleagues who spurned her in favour of the new kid from Illinois; and Harry Reid is dug in as majority leader. She may find it more attractive to run for the governorship of New York.

And, during the campaign, Mrs Clinton has damaged not only her future but also her past. The Clintons were modernisers who argued that the Democratic Party needed to reinvent itself—embracing free-trade, investing in human capital and reaching out to upwardly mobile voters. During her inept bid Mrs Clinton fell back on all the worst instincts of Democratic politics—denouncing free trade, stirring up the resentments of blue-collar America, and adding a flirtation with racism to the brew. After such an unedifying performance, it is hard to believe that Mrs Clinton’s failed campaign represents a missed opportunity for America.

Link to the original story The Economist.com

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