3/02/2008

Anatomy of a Clinton Comeback: Part 2

(Note: This is the second half of an extended piece about Hillary Clinton. To read the first half, click here.)

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3. Stop complaining and fight. At the most recent debate in Cleveland, Clinton started the debate off by whining about "being asked the first question" and sarcastically chided the moderators for not asking if "Barack [Obama] wants another pillow." This was a stunningly stupid thing for her to say because it only reinforced her negatives, reminded voters that she was losing, sounded petty instead of presidential, and wasted time that could have been better spent articulating her views on something that actually mattered to voters. One of the most basic rules of politics is that when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. (Regarding her actual complaint, Dan Abrams of MSNBC argued that she had a point, but her poor delivery crowded out her actual message.)

Clinton needs to accept the fact that underdogs don't get treated as well as frontrunners do. Just ask Chris Dodd. What she needs to do is suck it up and work with what she has. She should be thrilled when she is asked a question because that gives her more opportunities to make her case to the voters. Obviously in politics, it's usually better to rebut than to go first because it gives you extra time to think and new avenues for attacking your opponent, but when you don't have this flexibility, you just have to work with what you've got.

She needs to return to the ironclad message discipline and trademark unflappability that defined her campaign last year. When sharks smell blood, they attack. And that's what the media did after the debate. Her overall performance at the Cleveland debate was actually quite steady and commendable, but because of her whining, a lot of time was spent responding to that instead of lauding her grasp of policy.

4. Wait. As I just mentioned, aside from her complaining, Clinton turned in a reasonably strong debate performance. Democrats in Texas and Ohio would be wise to follow New Hampshire's lead and keep her in the game just a little longer because she is a very strong candidate who offers a skill set that Obama cannot match. This is not to say that Obama is underqualified or that he is a poorer candidate than she is. However, her knowledge of foreign affairs and her political pragmatism cannot be denied even though Obama has a clear opening when it comes to Iraq.

Republicans are going to ignore Obama's superior oratory skills and focus more on him being "the most liberal senator" and "out of the mainstream." Will Obama wither under these kinds of attacks? As for Clinton, while she defines herself as a "progressive" and has a left of center voting record, there are several issues on which she is more of a centrist. So perhaps she would be better able to parry these attacks.

There is still enough time for Clinton (with the Republicans' unsolicited help) to plant these doubts in the minds of enough voters to turn the tide in her favor. And there always exists the possibility of a gaffe, a skeleton in someone's closet, or an unforced error that would render Obama unelectable. In addition, it is unlikely that Obama can sustain the momentum he has generated thus far, so if Clinton is able to ride out this wave, she could emerge victorious.

5. Turn Iraq into an advantage. It is true that Clinton is vulnerable on Iraq because she wasn't against it "from the very beginning" like Obama. Obama was also able to successfully turn Iraq against her in the most recent debate by reminding voters that "she drove the bus into the ditch to begin with."

However, Obama's "purity" on Iraq is only a winner among Democrats and liberals. Despite the financial burden, increased regional instability, and loss of American lives that the Iraq War has caused, the broader electorate feels that regardless of our reasons for going to war in the first place, the fact remains that we are there now and we have to handle our responsibilities there as carefully and as pragmatically as possible. Saying you were against the war from the very beginning does not change the reality on the ground, does not bring a single soldier home, and does not secure Baghdad.

Should Obama remind Clinton that she was duped by the president, Clinton could turn this back on him by asking if the majority of Americans were also duped because they supported engaging Iraq militarily. And while these Americans may have been "duped," they cannot be faulted for wanting to take actions that they thought would best defend this country. Clinton will never be able to out-dove Obama on Iraq, so she should try and seize the mantle of being a pragmatist on the issue while reminding voters that despite his superior judgment, it does not account for the current reality of our situation there.

National security is the best card Republicans have left to play. They will relentlessly attack Obama for wanting to "surrender" to the terrorists, even if the merits of their argument are suspect. It would be harder for them to make this argument against Clinton because she voted with John McCain on Iraq. The contrast Clinton could make with McCain is that while they both voted to enter Iraq, she is thinking about how continued operations there weaken the United States overall and make the nation less able to respond to another conflict elsewhere. It might not necessarily be a winning argument, but it as at least more credible than trying to apologize for her war vote without explicitly apologizing. At the very least, this argument would allow Clinton to somewhat blunt the natural advantage Republicans have on national security by displaying a bit of competence on the issue. Moderate and conservative Democrats should also find this pragmatism appealing.

Again, Obama is in a much better position to win the Democratic presidential nomination and could potentially deliver a fatal blow to Clinton on March 4 if she gets shut out in both Texas and Ohio. However, Clinton is not as helpless as the punditry may think. There are several things she can do right now to right her ship and position herself as a credible alternative to Obama that doesn't make Democrats want to hold their noses in the event that they must vote for her. Neutralizing Bill Clinton, acting presidential, staying on message, and not giving up are all strategies she can employ that are independent of Obama. While Obama obviously controls his own destiny (the race is currently his to lose), Clinton has a bit more control than she thinks, but only should she choose to exercise it.

3 comment(s):

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

attack politics dont work any more, so i would suffice to say no comeback at all

icanseeclearlynow said...

there are more unforced errors in the clinton camp. the spouses just need to shut it, smile and wave! excellent post, anthony. you got my vote. good luck!

:)

maria

Anthony Palmer said...

Torrance,

If attack politics don't work, then how is a politician supposed to get ahead of the opposition? One general rule of politics is that you have to go on offense if you want to gain ground. Frontrunners don't have to attack anyone.

I think showing clear distinctions between candidates shouldn't be considered attack politics, but candidates commonly spin it as "negative attack dog politics" or something similarly stupid. When people try and slime another candidate and try to play "gotcha," that's when you get into trouble.

Regarding Clinton's chances, I don't think she can win the nomination on pledged delegates alone. She'll need the superdelegates to switch allegiances. I really can't envision a scenario where she wins the nomination without stoking the ire of many people who believe she "stole" the election--especially in light of MI and FL.

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I Can See,

Thanks for the vote! Please tell your friends! Clinton seems to have found her message discipline and also seems to have found something that is actually sticking: media bias in favor of Obama. Seems like the press is being a bit tougher on Obama now and the narratives are no longer as soft. I think she can win both Ohio and Texas. If that happens, even if she's way behind in delegates and the popular vote, she will have momentum and will legitimately be able to change the narrative of the race.

Thanks for the comments.