When the U.S. primary campaign began, there was great excitement among Americans and foreigners about the history-making potential of the first viable black or woman presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. The primary contest is effectively over.
Whereas Barack Obama has weathered the storms and controversies, sometimes rising above them but also losing some of his early halo, Hillary Clinton finishes a much diminished persona. Her latest gaffe is symptomatic of her flawed candidacy. Justifying her decision to stay in the race, she referenced Bobby Kennedy's assassination in June 1968. The insensitive, tasteless and potentially lethal remark crystallized many serious negatives: tone deaf compared to Bill Clinton's pitch-perfect political skills; cold-bloodedly calculating; and unable to admit a serious error of judgment and moving on by apologizing for it, instead of blaming everyone else for inflaming the situation.
Clinton began with the biggest brand name in Democratic politics, household name recognition, a party machine and electoral organization in thrall to the Clintons, a 100 million dollars war chest, a network of operatives and loyalists across the country, and the priceless asset of a spouse who was hero-worshipped by the party's base. None of this was proof against the lethal mix of hubris, arrogance, incompetence and misjudgments.
As the preordained nominee, Clinton was anticipating a coronation, not a contest with a junior, younger, African-American upstart who bested her in organization, mobilization and fund-raising. Her campaign morphed from enthusiasm to bitterness, pettiness, pandering, and race-baiting that has generated Clinton fatigue. When her team conducts a group postmortem, they should ask: If Obama is so deeply flawed and weak, how come we lost?
In a year when voters were hungry for change, including a yearning to move beyond the Bush-Clinton dynasties, she ran on insider experience. Positioning herself as the inevitable nominee, she clung to the center confident that the left-liberals would swallow their pride and stay inside the Democratic tent. Hence, for example, her vote for the Iraq war. By the time she corrected course and discovered her true meta-narrative as the fighter for the ordinary worker, it was too late: Her liberal, youth and black voters had defected to Obama, never to return.
Her desperate mid-campaign tack back to the party center blurred the policy differences with Obama. The contest then became one of character and personality. Matched against the elegant and cool Obama, she was a dead duck; or rather, the ugly duckling that never did turn into the beautiful swan even during the swansong of her lofty ambitions. Eloquence-envy from a pedestrian, sometimes grating public speaker may explain the disastrous fabrications of being under sniper fire in Bosnia, which so damagingly played into all her public negatives.
Again too late in the day, she discovered that Obama was most vulnerable if she hewed to the cultural, not political, center, as the champion and defender of everyday American habits and values. But then this, too, was immediately undermined by her blatant pandering on the idea of a gasoline tax holiday, which allowed Obama to deflect attention from the incendiary Jeremiah Wright to her gimmickry (and by implication untrustworthiness) against his own honesty and straight talk.
Like George W. Bush, Clinton elevated loyalty above competence. Mark Penn, her chief strategist, never grasped that Democrats allocate delegates proportionately. He--her chief strategist--thought that victory in California would bag all the state's 370 delegates. They were similarly bewildered by the complexity of the primary-cum-caucus rules in Texas, with the result that Clinton won more votes but Obama collected more delegates. And Penn was contracted to negotiate a free trade deal for the Colombian government while Clinton was campaigning against it.
Team Obama's attention to detail and rules paid handsome dividends in harvesting delegates in caucus after caucus that Clinton had chosen to ignore and then publicly belittled and denigrated after her string of losses.
Obama's brilliance at fund-raising left Clinton looking leaden. Her political strategy was based on early victory. Astonishingly, she had no Plan B. The continual turmoil and shake-up did little to shore up faith in her organizational, presidential, financial management and commander-in-chief credentials.
Clinton had a powerful case regarding the importance of Michigan and Florida, the political perils of disenfranchising voters from these key battleground states, and the idiosyncrasies of the primary process. Almost certainly she would win these states in a proper contest. Her case would have been compelling and persuasive had she protested from the start against the party's decision to penalize the two states for trying to advance their primary dates in order to jump the queue. In fact she agreed with the party's wrongheaded decision not to count their delegates. Her subsequent insistence that they be counted, once she fell behind Obama, cemented perceptions about her bad faith and untrustworthiness.
Clinton was guilty of serial race-baiting. She said bluntly that "hard-working Americans, white Americans" in her coalition would never vote for Obama. This "only whites are hard-working" and "Psst, Obama is black, America is white" strategy incensed blacks, outraged many whites and antagonized several Congressional colleagues. But it was part of a pattern, starting with the Hispanic card in Nevada, including Bill Clinton's effort to belittle Obama as merely a black candidate in South Carolina, and exploding with a live on-screen confrontation on May 5 between Paul Begala, a Clinton supporter, and Donna Brazile, an undeclared Obama-leaning super-delegate.
The New York Times columnist Bob Herbert let loose with a brutal assault on her (May 10) that recalled the Clintons' many lapses and ethically challenged code of conduct from yesteryears that Obama had been too polite to use against a fellow-Democrat woman. Just Bill Clinton's 1999 pardoning of convicted FALN Puerto Rican terrorists alone touched on honesty, patriotism, terrorism, national security, justice and abuse of office to help Hillary's run for the Senate to court New York's Puerto Rican vote, all wrapped in one convenient scandal.
Others noted that no Democrat could have been elected president since 1960 without the near-total black support. This year the liberal condescension--the Rosa Parks syndrome, that blacks should know their place at the back of the bus or line and stay there until called--will be put to the test with Obama as the nominee. Blacks have delivered for white Democratic candidates for 50 years; it's time to call in the favor.
Could Clinton be angling for the vice-presidential spot? A combined "dream ticket" seems very unlikely. Her presence, with all the baggage of old politics, would contradict his central message. Some wag commented that he would need a full-time food taster. Michelle Obama is said to be strongly opposed. Clinton would make it difficult to reach across to independents and moderate Republicans. The Clintons back in power would mean a reprise of drama and dysfunctionality. How would Obama handle his vice-president's spouse being a former president?
Nothing can take away Clinton's historic reach, which brings the presidency within the grasp of other women. The tragedy is that she does have so many admirable traits and political pluses. Those who have known her the longest and the best insist that she is smart, brilliant, savvy, dedicated, warm and witty. Her years of very public struggles and humiliations have created a public persona greatly at variance with the private person. She did best during encounters, as in the famous New Hampshire TV interview, that allowed the real Hillary to come through the tough exterior. It's a pity that the strategy was to emphasize her toughness and downgrade her human qualities. Her political skills and policy mastery might yet be harnessed to effective public leadership in the Senate. The gravely ill Sen. Ted Kennedy's life is a metaphor for the transience of turmoil and the lasting legacy of legislative accomplishments that would have been denied him had he won the presidency.