While I think it’s way too early for people to be proclaiming Hillary Clinton’s once-inevitable acension to the Democratic nomination dead, she is clearly in troubled waters. More than that, she has found herself in the unenviable position of not being able to effectively counter Barack Obama in traditional political ways – if she tries the high road via the earnest, well-meaning, “policy wonk/issues” route, Obama has already proven he can out-wonk her and be just as articulate about it; if takes the low road and goes on the attack, as she did on Saturday, she sounds shrill (frankly, bitchy), thus revealing her general “unlikeability” problem.
In the end, if indeed her campaign does go down in flames, it will boil down to two general factors, one she could little to overcome, and one horribly self-inflicted, whether by her, her campaign, or both.
In the first case, Kirk Caraway in Sunday’s Nevada Appeal, more than anything, points to what I have been saying all along – that Hillary Clinton’s Barack Obama problem hints at an even greater hurdle she would face come the general election – the fact that, at the very core, she remains, after all this time and all this campaigning, virtually unelectable:
Forty-seven percent. That is the hurdle that has stood in front of Hillary Clinton since the day she announced her intention to run for president.
Forty-seven percent is the portion of Americans who have a negative opinion of Clinton, and getting them to change their minds is extremely difficult.
Not that she hasn’t tried. Her campaign began with an effort to “reintroduce herself to the American people,” and her claims that she was the most famous person Americans didn’t know.
How did that work out?
Overcoming that 47 percent is not an insurmountable task. George W. Bush won both his presidential elections with 48 percent of voters casting their ballots for his opponents.
But going into a race knowing that she had 47 percent of the people against her meant that Clinton had to run a perfect campaign. There was no room for any slippage of support, any gaffes that might push more voters to oppose her.
And for a while, it looked like she was doing just that.
Early in this contest, she was positioned as the front-runner, always on message and riding high above the rest of the field. She was the New England Patriots of presidential candidates.
But then along came Barack Obama. More of a movement than a campaign, Obama created a real challenge to Clinton. And when they lined up to battle for the top prize, the vaunted Clinton Machine fell apart.
As I’ve pointed out previously in this very spot, Hillary’s main problem is that, frankly, people – especially men – don’t like her, and, given the chance in a quiet dark ballot box, would go out of their way to vote against her. And it has nothing to do with her as a woman; rather, it has everything to do with her smarmy, “I’m smarter than you and I know it and am not afraid to show it” persona. Consider other females of the political arena – Margaret Thatcher, the tough-as-nails former British Prime Minister, Elizabeth Dole, Laura Bush, or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – these are equally educated, smart, and (in their own ways) strong female politicians who have in their own genetic make-up a likeability factor that Hillary simply can’t, and never will, be able to match.
As for the second point, about that horrible, self-inflicted wound her campaign inflicted upon itself, may I point to this New York Times piece, which alludes to something else I’ve been saying all along: if I were running the Clinton campaign, I would have told husband Bill to take a nice long vacation in Tahiti:
Over take-out meals and late-night drinks, some regrets and recriminations have set in, and top aides have begun to face up to the campaignâ€™s possible end after the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4. Engaging in hindsight, several advisers have now concluded that they were not smart to use former President Bill Clinton as much as they did, that â€œhis presence, aura and legacy caused national fatigue with the Clintons,â€ in the words of one senior adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to assess the campaign candidly.
Without question, all that bringing him aboard – and, even worse, putting him front and center – did was to: 1) diminish her in the minds of her seemingly-unshakeable gender base as a strong, independent female candidate capable of standing on her own two feet, 2) remind voters of what the “Clinton fatigue” of the late ’90s was all about, and 3) reveal her to be a rather poor imitation of the charismatic “rock star” politician her husband (like him or not) was in Democratic circles.
In hindsight, I can only shake my head in wonder at what her campaign must have been thinking. You have a (supposedly) strong, intelligent female candidate with the already formidable support of many baby-boomer and older women, and how do you showcase her talents? By dragging out her obnoxious and philandering husband in front of every camera and reporter and allow him to run his mouth off at both ends? All this ended up doing was cause many women to question just how “independent” and “strong” Hillary Clinton was, both as a woman and as a presidential candidate, and make voters in general question who, in fact, would actually be running the White House were she to be elected.
The result has been an absolute disaster for the Hillary! candidacy. People like Susan Estrich can hypothesize all they want that, deep down, the rejection of Hillary! is the rejection of her as a woman, but I would counter that her campaign’s strategy has never allowed her to run as a woman, but rather – and more omniously to many voters – as a Clinton (i.e., the “Billary” candidacy).
And that has been the difference.
Want a time-tested recipe for political disaster? Combine one part unlikeability factor with one part inherent weakness on display; that, my friends (as John McCain is wont to say), is the crux of the biscuit and a formula in politics for a one-way ticket to Palookaville. Which is why, if Hillary Clinton is going to salvage her sinking campaign, she’s going to have to pull off the political equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
And frankly, it couldn’t happen to a more deserving person.