One of the biggest international stories so far this year has been the rise and rise of Barack Obama. Its twin is the collapse of Hillary Clinton's campaign. She has the air of a loser as the aura of inevitability gives way to a scramble for relevance. Her perseverance gives meaning to the audacity of hope.
British Parliament member Ann Widdecombe famously said of fellow Conservative (and later party leader) Michael Howard that there was something of the night about him. There is something of the crisp freshness of the dawn about Obama. He has been able to shine light on the dark landscape of despair and self-doubt afflicting the United States. Hillary Clinton has lost what was her greatest asset a year ago--the mystique of invincibility--leaving her like a fading star as dawn breaks. His vision of hope has triumphed over her claim of experience.
Obama has momentum, money (the mother's milk of U.S. politics) and media. Tellingly, all the television networks cut off Clinton in mid-sentence on Feb. 19 to switch to Obama's rousing rally speech in Houston. Astonishingly, the 58 percent to 41 percent margin in Wisconsin is the closest Clinton has come in his string of 11 galloping victories on the trot. Obama's margin over Clinton in Wisconsin was about the same as Sen. John McCain's over Gov. Mike Huckabee (55 percent to 37 percent). What makes this even more remarkable is that Wisconsin is her natural demographic turf: a preponderance of blue-collar white voters in a state with a strong industrial base. In other words, in a demographically friendly state, Clinton is as formidable a foe as Huckabee in a demographically unfriendly one.
Clinton's petty attacks on Obama's eloquence sound like speech envy. She is trapped in her own metanarrative, which has failed to excite the voters while Obama's has tapped into a deep yearning for change from the politics of mutual destruction to one of a calling for a higher shared purpose.
The criticism of Obama as being light on experience is not unfounded, but has failed to resonate with voters. By caricaturing any questioning of his naivete as an attack on hope-mongering, he turned around the charge. Clinton became the wicked witch of the East bent on destroying hope.
Clinton's problem was compounded by her own fairytale claims of 35 years of experience. Her one executive-level experience during Bill Clinton's presidency was to be put in charge of health care reform, and that went down in flames. Her management style contributed to the epic train wreck. On Iraq, a core issue with the party's base, the boast of greater experience is hollow against Obama's proof of better judgment. Her inability to acknowledge and apologize for her Iraq vote reinforces her image as a focus-group driven and calculating politician, while her tortured explanation that she was naive to trust George W. Bush is disingenuous and undermines her claim to be ready to take charge on day one.
The experience-equals-competence metanarrative has been disproved with the ineptitude and turmoil engulfing Clinton's campaign against the professionalism and smoothly purring efficiency of the Obama express. Her entire organizational and financial effort was predicated on triumph by Super Tuesday on Feb. 5. That night's results, when the two dueled to a draw, marked the end of the beginning. The results of Feb. 19 might mark the beginning of the end. Obama's rout of her in Virginia and Maryland on the Feb. 12 showed the first cracks in Clinton's coalition. Wisconsin on Feb. 19 confirmed the cracks are widening, his demographic disadvantages are disappearing and Clinton risks being deluged by Obama-mania. The latest national opinion polls show his lead widening and his support broadening as voters coalesce into a new winning coalition around him.
Then there was the experience equals resilience argument (tested, vetted and investigated): Clinton was supposedly tough enough to have beaten back numerous attacks from the Republicans. Voters show a hunger to move beyond this take-no-prisoners style of politics as a contact sport. And it once again reinforced her negative image as willing to say and do anything to recapture the White House. When voters are warming to Obama's promise of unifying the nation and healing the wounds, she guarantees divisiveness and polarization--from day one. Her latest "kitchen sink" battle plan risks further alienation of voters and humiliation at their hands.
Clinton's refusal to release tax returns (on which she has got a free pass from the press) and the list of donors to her husband's various activities reinforces voter unease about rolling the dice on another Clinton administration.
On electability, McCain's Washington experience is longer, more genuine and more substantial than Clinton's. Clinton will lack credibility on national security and as commander-in-chief-in-waiting against a genuine war hero; Obama can change the storyline by emphasizing judgment and the use of force against the real enemy, at the right time, in the right place. In opinion polls, on average Obama beats McCain by five points while Clinton loses by four points. Significantly, Obama received a total of about 646,000 Wisconsin votes against about 403,000 for all the Republican candidates combined. By contrast, Clinton--she of the "insult 40 states" strategy--started the primary with the contempt of half the electorate (Republicans) and has collected the contempt also of half the Democrats (the Obama supporters) along the way.
Ironically, Obama's campaign has relied on the insight of Karl Rove, the architect of Bush's victories. Clinton's strategy of triangulation has aimed to capture the middle ground. But the pool of voters there is small and shrinking. Rove's strategy was to energize the core Republican base (for which Clinton--any Clinton--as the opponent would be a gift). Obama has done brilliantly in drawing new voters to the primaries and caucuses in record numbers while attracting independents and centrists.
Can Ohio and Texas revive Clinton's campaign, or has she run out of time, arguments, money, primaries and even respect as she launches her negative attacks? Obama leads her in votes, delegates, states and opinion polls. The average margin of his victory over Clinton in the last 10 successive wins, not weighting for populations, is 36.6 percent. He is sounding and looking increasingly presidential, calm, dignified and resistant to being rattled; she looks and sounds increasingly exhausted and shrill.
Clinton's choice is to withdraw with grace and humility or go for a do-or-die scorched earth policy until March 4 and ruin her prospects of becoming an elder senator aiming for a legacy of legislative accomplishments. Negative attacks and hints of convention skulduggery by Clinton reinforce her image of ruthlessness and win-at-any-price ambition. Negative attacks on Obama are deflected by decrying the same old politics of barroom brawling. Obama's uplifting cathartic speeches have been met by confused and continually shifting messages. The alternating screaming and mocking performance over the Oscars weekend adds to a sense of a campaign careering out of control. The victim-in-chief cry rallies but a narrowing circle of the faithful. Her cute one-liner attack on alleged plagiarism in the Texas debate drew the night's only boos. Her closing statement seemed to hint at a graceful valedictory concession--and earned her the night's only standing ovation. The hint has since been denied; will Ohio or Texas deny her the coronation?