The Stupidity of Inevitability
Some criticized Senator Clinton for having Wesley Clark and Madeleine Albright stand behind her, when she addressed the crowd, after her Iowa debacle. When the caucus-goers clearly made a call for "change," why remind people of her ties to the past? I disagree with that assessment. Wesley Clark and Madeleine Albright represent sober competence, and who doesn't want sober competence after seven years of Bush Administration fanaticism and catastrophic bungling?
The real problem with Senator Clinton's ties to the past is her reliance on campaign strategists who no longer understand whatever degree of political dynamics they might once have been plausibly credited for having understood. They have rightfully been receiving much criticism and scorn, the past few days, but I want to focus on the entire premise of Hillary's campaign. Experience is a good selling point, but inevitability is absurd to the point of stupidity. In the short term, inevitability can seem exciting, and generate the bandwagon effect that is now benefitting Senator Obama, but in a protracted campaign, it's not going to convince and hold many undecided voters. People are not swayed to stick with a candidate wholly because that candidate ostensibly has a nomination won. If anything, they're going to be more wary, and perhaps even disgusted, by being told that they don't actually have a say, and that their votes don't matter. Beyond that, inevitability becomes cause for caution, within a campaign, which inevitably sucks off its potential energy and excitement. As the Obama campaign is proving, for better or worse, energy and excitement motivate voters.
Joe Conason is one of the many who have identified Clinton strategist Mark Penn as undermining her campaign's potential:
But Obama's achievement is not diminished in any way by observing that he enjoyed the unintentional assistance of Hillary Clinton, who suffered the consequences of consistently choosing caution over inspiration. From the high point of her primary campaign last September, when she introduced a strong healthcare platform that overshadowed those of her opponents, she eventually fell back into the calculated dullness that is the hallmark of her longtime advisors, most notably her strategist Mark Penn.
Indeed, Penn can serve as the symbol of what went wrong in Iowa for Clinton and what is least attractive about her campaign. A corporate consultant of consummate cynicism and conservative instincts, Penn's approach is always more or less the same old sameness, with all the clichéd assumptions about the peril of populism and the safety of centrism. Apparently he could neither imagine that Obama might widen the caucus electorate nor conceive a serious strategy to cope with that challenge. Hillary Clinton has always lacked the suppleness and versatility of her husband, and that was a deficit for which Penn had nothing to compensate. The embarrassment he caused her months ago, when reporters exposed his public relations company's union-busting division, was a bellwether.
Weighed down by her advisors and her own habitual style, Clinton was unable to exploit the mistakes committed by Obama. His sly gestures toward the right and the Republicans, his inadequate healthcare proposal and his Social Security gaffes offered her the chance to flank him on the left, where he was strongest and she was weakest, owing to her Iraq war vote. She scored in the debate over healthcare, but retreated when he attacked her plan's mandated coverage (as if his own plan didn't include a mandate to insure children).
Al Gore and John Kerry were both crippled by their reliance on strategists who told them to be cautious, and who, more than anything, over-thought their campaigns rather than simply allowing their candidates to be themselves. Penn and company have done the same to Hillary. I spent part of the day, Saturday, trying to understand the idea behind an inevitability campaign. If it's not going to motivate undecideds, then what's the point? How did that become a campaign theme, in the first place? And that drew me to the other half of Hillary's campaign problem: Terry McAuliffe.
As his disastrous tenure at the head of the DNC proved, McAuliffe is great at raising money, but inept at doing something with it. And that's where inevitability must have come from. Undecided voters are not going to be swayed by inevitability, but campaign donors are. So, the idea must have been to swamp Hillary's opponents with her ability to raise money. A legitimate argument can be made for that. But it didn't work. Barack Obama quickly proved he was also capable of raising piles of cash, and once he did, the Clinton team should have abandoned inevitability and refocused on winning votes, rather than money. They didn't.
Is it too late for Hillary? That's the question everyone is asking, and the fact that they are asking works against her. Obama is benefitting from the bandwagon effect, but that, itself, gets back to the inevitability game. In the short break between Iowa and New Hampshire, bandwagon excitement can make a huge difference- as it is; and it seems almost certain to easily roll right through South Carolina. Can it be sustained through February 5, and the much larger states, with their much more diverse voting populations? Possibly, but not necessarily. But will the corporate media, who have for so long so loathed the Clintons, succeed in convincing the public that a few quick wins by Obama ends the race? We will see.
At some point, Obama's own seeming inevitability is going to result in a renewed focus on his own flaws and vulnerabilities. His middle name and his youthful indiscretions are, thankfully, not going to be problems, but his unimpressive record and failure to explain what exactly "change" means could be. People care about Iraq and health care and global warming and the housing market. As the excitement of Obama's meteoric ascent wears off, people are going to want from Obama the same answers they have long demanded from Hillary: Why should you be president? How are you going to repair the damage done by the Bush Administration? How are you going to make the country and the world better places? Some are now using almost mystical terms to explain the effect of Obama's rhetoric, but pragmatics will soon reassert their rightful place.
Passion and pretty words can carry Senator Obama for some more weeks, but even if he locks up the race, it will still be months before the Convention. By then, people may already be experiencing buyers' remorse. It would be nice if both Senator Clinton and Senator Edwards can draw the process out, but whether that's possible is an open question. Senator Edwards doesn't appear to have the money. Senator Clinton may not have the right people spending it. Even the coming shake-up in her campaign staff may be too late in coming.
The Clinton campaign may have blown their chance at the nomination by relying too heavily on inevitability. They didn't create the presumption, but they overplayed it. The Obama campaign may soon have the same dynamic to work for the long haul to November.