The Plank

Could Clinton's Problem Be...clinton?

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Over at the Huffington Post, our friend Tom Edsall has a terrific article, laying out in detail the Clinton campaign's strategy for what he calls "trench warfare" -- a drawn-out fight focussing on later primaries and caucuses, when the bulk of the party's nominating delegates will be at stake. The hope, apparently, is to capitalize on Clinton's lingering support among the Democratic base, given the fact that many (though by no means all) of the upcoming contests exclude the sorts of independent voters so pivotal to Obama's rise.

Of course, simply waiting for Obama's wave of popularity to crest isn't much of a strategy.  So the Clinton campaign will try to convince voters that "Obama is just not a plausible person in this environment of
international peril" -- making the point, over time, that "there is
not even a second level to Obama, there is no depth." 

Edsall also notes the possibility of a staff shake-up, starting with the ouster of pollster and chief strategist Mark Penn.  As Karen Tumulty noted in her superb Time article on the Iowa defeat, inside the campaign Penn critics hold him responsible for a strategy that was "too cautious, too arrogant, too conventional
and too clueless as to how much the political landscape has shifted
since the last Clinton reign."

I can't speak to the inner dynamics of Hillaryland, but that view of Penn is certainly widely held outside the campaign -- which is why this quote in Edsall's article, from American Enterprise Institute political scientist Norm Ornstein, caught my eye:

I am not one of those who joins in the pillorying of Mark Penn. They
played the hand they had, and that hand was built around experience and
nostalgia for the Clinton administration. If they had switched to a
message of change six months ago, it would not have been any more
credible then than it is now.

Unlike Ornstein, I am quite happy to pillory Mark Penn.  And I agree the Clinton campaign has probably been too cautious and conventional, at least at the level of rhetoric.

But on the broader question of why Clinton has floundered, I suspect Ornstein is onto something here.  When campaigns fail, everybody second-guesses the strategy.  A big reason for this is the horse-race mentality of political journalism, which hesitates to offer even qualified opinions on matters of policy but gleefully renders firm judgments on matters of political strategy.  

But perhaps the biggest problem with the Clinton campaign is Clinton.  However conventional and clueless her campaign atmospherics may have been, I think she got her point across in Iowa: She's the one with the most relevant experience and the best policies.  And it's pretty solid argument -- maybe even a convincing one, if those were the only criteria that mattered. 

But they aren't -- nor should they be.  There's judgment, for starters.  (And here, surely, Obama's prescient opposition to the Iraq war ought to count for something.)  The ability to attract new voters and build a movement is also important, because movements equal political strength, which is essential to successful governing (not to mention getting elected).  Clinton doesn't seem to have this ability.  Obama does.  

Reasonable people can argue over how to weigh these qualities.  And if Clinton can wage the kind of long-term campaign her advisers have in mind, we'll continue to have that argument over the coming weeks and months -- which is just fine with me.  There's no reason to end this discussion hastily.  (That includes keeping John Edwards in it, by the way.  We'll talk about populism, and the media's reflexive dismissal of it, some other time.)

But you also can't ignore the fact that voters in one state -- Iowa -- thought long and hard about that question, then rendered a pretty clear verdict.  They sided with Obama and did so thanks, in good part, to an influx of first-time voters.  In other words, the Obama movement isn't just a matter of theory.  It exists -- and, by all accounts, it's growing.  That means his case is even stronger than it was a week ago.

Besides, Obama may be inexperienced, but it's not like he's lacking for brains or substance.  Walter Mondale could run a "where's the beef?" campaign against Gary Hart in 1984 because Hart's platform really was under-developed.  You can't say that about Obama.  In his speeches, he doesn't talk about policy in the way that Clinton does.  But he's put out a detailed and comprehensive policy vision of his own.  And while I don't think the sum total of his ideas are as good as Clinton's, they're still pretty impressive.

As best as I can tell, the voters in Iowa considered everything Clinton has to offer -- and decided Obama simply offers them more.  If the polls are right, the voters in New Hampshire are thinking the very same thing.  As Joe Klein put it, this nomination campaign is shaping up as "the triumph of hope over experience."  Voters in other states may decide differently, but I have a hard time seeing how a new pollster or slogan will make that happen.

--Jonathan Cohn 

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