Sunday, January 06, 2008

She's Come Undone

Maybe Hillary Clinton can still come back but her campaign looks in deep trouble. The latest polls suggest that Barack Obama has rocketed into the lead in New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton, a Democratic icon, currently attracts around 30 percent of New Hampshire voters--about the same share that lead to her Iowa undoing.

Why is Hillary Clinton's campaign--the work of a lifetime supported by much of the Democratic establishment--unraveling? Why may she yet come back and overturn the new conventional wisdom on Obama's growing inevitability?

A Uniter, Not a Divider
George Bush promised to bring the nation together when he was elected in 2000. However, as the nation has learned, Bush's vision of unity turned out to be a hollow promise. Bush views compromise as a dirty word--the equivalent of surrender--and doesn't even like to get advice from people who agree with his goals but have different ideas on how to achieve them.

For some, Karl Rove's politics of division mean that polarization is the only option. Whether or not this is the correct political strategic analysis, I don't know but the country vehemently yearns for someone to unite the American people behind positive purpose. Bush's failure as a uniter and exploitation of 9/11 hasn't delegitimized this goal, it has increased the desire for it.

Hillary Clinton simply cannot be that person. Fairly or not, she is a deeply polarizing figure. Her campaign's premise that she knows how to fight Republican attacks through long experience reinforces perceptions that she divides the country. Americans don't want a continuation of the Bush-Clinton War of the Roses. They're ready to turn the page.

Inspiration, Faith, and Likeability
Clinton derides Obama's rhetoric as empty words but people welcome inspiration, especially in difficult times. Bill Clinton was a great candidate in 1992 precisely because he combined an ability to connect with people with campaign competence--a congenial combination in any campaign but especially to Democrats yearning to take back the White House.

Hillary Clinton lacks the same ability the speak to a crowd and connect with her audience. She is far better in small groups and in debates but much of a presidential campaign--and a presidency--is public speaking. Obama's bounce out of Iowa was particularly springy because of the contrast between his own amazing oratory and her failure to use a chance to connect with the American people. No one is going to vote for her because she is ready on "Day One".

Obama's ability to use rhetoric and connect with people may make him the stronger general election candidate even though Clinton is a more centrist candidate. More specifically, Obama shows respect for and connects with people of faith in a manner that reminds me of Clinton. Unfortunately, it's Bill, not Hillary. The last three Democrats to win the White House all shared this trait; the last three to lose did not.

Important in a primary campaign, Hillary Clinton evokes strong negative reactions not just from Republicans but from many Democrats. I've met quite a few core Democrats who express not just mild dislike but even loathing for the former First Lady. Why is really beside the point; the key here is that the feeling exists. One severe problem Clinton faces as she tries to regroup is that she doesn't appear to be anyone's second choice. Obama just grows stronger as more candidates drop out.

February 5th
If Obama wins in New Hampshire, it seems all but inconceivable that he will stumble in South Carolina--a state where African Americans will compose roughly one-half of the primary electorate. The current conventional wisdom assumes that a sweep of the first three primaries will make an Obama victory inevitable.

However, a plethora of states will then cast their ballots for delegates on February 5th. We've never had a single national contest quite like it. We've also never had a challenger--and that's what Hillary will be if she loses the first three primaries--as well funded.

Have the national polls begun to shift with Obama's Iowa contest? No public polls have yet been released so it isn't clear. Clinton faces the challenge of remaking her public image fast even though the view of her in the public mind is well formed after sixteen years of national exposure. However, she will have the reserves in terms of finances and political support to attempt it.

The Media
Which relates to my second reason not to count Hillary Clinton out just yet. The media loves to create a new star--and then to tear this same person to pieces. As he wins more primaries, Obama will come under more intense scrutiny. The national presidential press corps is a meat grinder unlike any other. Even the smallest gaffe is magnified instantaneously. No doubt Clinton will be prepared to take advantage.

The question is whether she will get her chance. So far, Obama has shown an impressive ability to deflect attacks back on the attacker. He has a self-discipline in a campaign that reminds me of Bill Clinton. Like Bill, Obama has the support of a formidable spouse.

Both Clinton and Obama will be tested by this primary campaign. Whoever wins will be stronger in the general election for it.