3/02/2008

Anatomy of a Clinton Comeback: Part 1

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

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The caucuses and primaries on March 4 in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont have been dubbed Junior Super Tuesday. This is welcome news for politicos who will have been starved of fresh primary election results for about two weeks. Because of the saturation of pundits on television as of late, many political observers have noticed that there simply isn't much new to say right now. After the Wisconsin and Washington primaries, everybody knew that Barack Obama had the momentum, that John McCain was the assumed Republican nominee, and that Hillary Clinton was in serious trouble. And given that Obama is whittling down Clinton's lead in Ohio and may have overtaken her in Texas, these stories about mayday in the Clinton campaign seem prudent.

However, in light of all the twists and turns of the fight for the Democratic nomination so far, nothing is a done deal and the race may find yet another way to embarrass the punditry and the media just like it did with New Hampshire. To be sure, Clinton has a lot less room for error than Obama does, but there exists at least one scenario for her to win the nomination. Here's what she has to do:

1. Kick Bill Clinton out of the campaign, or at the very least, get him to stop making news. There was a lot of speculation last year about what role the former president would play. The consensus was that he would be Hillary Clinton's greatest asset and greatest weakness at the same time. Unfortunately for Hillary, her husband has turned out to be far more of a detriment than a benefit to her campaign, and he may have caused irreparable damage not just to her presidential ambitions but also to her political career and legacy in general. South Carolina is still a sore spot among what used to be her core constituency--Black voters. I live in South Carolina and the sentiment here (based on my own anecdotal experience) is that "they didn't know the Clintons as well as they thought they did."

How would silencing Bill Clinton or keeping him off the campaign trail keep Hillary Clinton's campaign afloat? For starters, it would remind voters that she, not he, is in charge of the campaign. Last year when Clinton was maintaining an aura of inevitability, it was due in part to the fact that she seemed in control. She was not hitting any home runs in the debates, but she was methodically belting out singles and doubles and running out the clock. She even managed to turn Bill Clinton into a foil, as she did at one New Hampshire debate when she said, "Well, he's not here [running for president]; I am." She was the one making news. She was the one on the attack. She was the one at the center. She was the one coming out from behind her husband's shadow looking attractively tough. But once Bill Clinton got too involved in the campaign, that reminded voters of the "two for the price of one" idea that failed the Clintons earlier. And worst of all, it also made voters question who the real president would be in a Hillary Clinton administration. This undermined her common campaign slogan "Ready to lead."

Hillary Clinton needs to create some sort of excitement about her campaign that the media could turn into free publicity. Demoting Bill Clinton would lead to numerous stories about "Hillary being reborn" or "Hillary 2.0" or best of all, "Hillary taking charge." That's far better than stories about her losing 11 contests in a row.

2. Adopt John Edwards' strategy and don't drop out of the race, even if Obama wins Texas and Ohio. Conventional wisdom says that if Clinton loses both megastates, her campaign is toast and she'll be under increased pressure to exit the race. This is a terrible idea. Unlike Mike Huckabee, at least Clinton still has a mathematically plausible chance of winning the nomination. And seeing that she's already come this far, she might as well fight on. There are only 11 states left for the Democrats; she might as well compete in all of them. Doing so would allow her to say that she fought for every vote in every state because she wanted to hear every voice.

When it became apparent that John Edwards' campaign was going nowhere (courtesy of his distant third-place showing in his home state of South Carolina), he vowed to stay in the race and essentially wait by the shower drain while hoping that either Obama or Clinton would stumble and end up falling down this very same drain. John Edwards didn't have much to lose, but the problem for him was that he had to employ this strategy far too early in the race. Edwards would have risked looking more like a laughing stock than a fighter had he endured defeat after defeat on Super Tuesday and beyond.

While Clinton hasn't fared much better for the past three weeks, at least she was able to hold her own on Super Tuesday. John Edwards' appeal was among less educated, working class Whites. These are the very same voters that live in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania--states she can win. Her message of being a champion of the working class seems to be a good fit for these states. (She might want to revive her night shift ad, retool it a bit, and give it a bit more airtime in these Midwestern states.)

The advantage of going the distance even if she's not able to amass enough pledged delegates is that she can rehabilitate her public image, make Obama a stronger candidate (which in turn benefits the Democratic Party), and make an even stronger case for superdelegates from the Midwest to support her. If Clinton toughs it out, she at least has a slight chance of victory. If she folds up her tent after March 4, it's back to the Senate for her.

(Click here to read the second half of this post.)

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