Clinton: What Went Wrong
Faced with unanticipated adversity, Hillary and Bill Clinton took the low road too often, and voters noticed. So did the party leadership and superdelegates, who abandoned her and the idea of a Clinton Restoration.
[Elections 2008: The Morning After]
Editor's Note: The following Op-Ed articles were published in The New York Times today under the general heading "What Went Wrong?" in response to Senator Hillary Clinton's defeat by Senator Barack Obama. We humbly make our own contribution to the debate: The better candidate, who won a much more stellar campaign, won. Here are the "experts" offering their opinion to The New York Times Op-Ed pages.
The Problem Wasn’t the Message — It Was the Money
By MARK PENN
Perhaps the most frustrating part of losing a close race is thinking about what else you could have done to win. You replay the campaign over and over again in your head. As an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, I sure do.
But the endless armchair chatter often obscures what actually needed to be done.
The conventional criticisms of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign are these: she had no message; she ran just on experience; she should have shown more of her warmer side; she was too negative; President Clinton’s campaigning hurt her; and she presented herself as inevitable. It is amazing she got any votes at all.
So let’s take on a few of the myths. Even schoolchildren got the message that Mrs. Clinton was ready to be president on Day One. As a result of her campaigning and ads, people saw her as a strong commander in chief, a good steward of the economy and a champion for people who needed one.
As the primaries came to an end, she had built a coalition of working-class voters, women, older voters and Latinos, and it held together — and even strengthened — as Barack Obama gained enough superdelegates to put him over the top. Nearly 18 million people responded to her message with their votes. But she went from a lead of 120 superdelegates in early February to a deficit of 40 before last Tuesday.
Experience was a major part of the campaign message, but far from the only one. She talked about the strength it takes to make change happen. Her campaign plans were bold: universal health care, universal preschool, new retirement accounts, a strategic energy fund. She was the first to jump on the housing crisis. She showed a relentless focus on substance and issues, which appealed to working-class and middle-class voters.
She did show her warmer side, and campaigned often with her mom and with her daughter. But it was her strength as a warrior that voters saw — as they had in New York — as she won primary after primary against the odds.
President Clinton tirelessly served as her adviser, fund-raiser and relentless campaigner. He drew enormous crowds and gained significant votes for his wife. In Pennsylvania, for example, she won by almost double the typical margin in the rural and suburban counties he visited.
The Clintons have spent their lives fighting as much as any leaders in their generation for greater equality across racial and gender lines. I believe nothing they said was ever intended to divide the country by race. Any suggestion to the contrary was perhaps the greatest injustice done to them in this campaign.
Are there a lot of other things the campaign could have done differently? Of course. We should have taken on Mr. Obama more directly and much earlier, and we needed a different kind of operation to win caucuses and to retain the support of superdelegates. From more aggressively courting young people earlier to mobilizing the full power of women, there are things that could have been done differently.
While everyone loves to talk about the message, campaigns are equally about money and organization. Having raised more than $100 million in 2007, the Clinton campaign found itself without adequate money at the beginning of 2008, and without organizations in a lot of states as a result. Given her successes in high-turnout primary elections and defeats in low-turnout caucuses, that simple fact may just have had a lot more to do with who won than anyone imagines.
And sometimes your opponent just runs a good campaign.
MARK J. PENN, an adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton since 1995 and a top adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
By MARK HALPERIN and JOHN F. HARRIS
People who invested the past five months of their lives following each twist and turn of the Democratic presidential drama should ask for a refund. At the close of the contest, it is now clear the race was on a nearly irreversible trajectory from its opening shot, the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.
Barack Obama’s victory in Iowa established two trends that were decisive. The first was his organizational prowess, which he would repeatedly demonstrate in later caucus states. The second was more profound. He showed African-Americans that he could win among white voters.
Before Iowa, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama were competing vigorously for black support, with Mrs. Clinton winning her share of elected officials and party leaders. After Iowa, black voters saw Mr. Obama as a viable candidate, and he won African-Americans overwhelmingly in every state.
Mrs. Clinton’s loss of African-American sympathies was the only major departure from her husband’s old coalition. Soccer moms, working-class whites, and “New Democrat” centrists all backed Mrs. Clinton with even more intensity than they had her husband.
Mr. Obama’s narrow victory came from a powerful combination of two constituencies. The first was white, highly educated, reform-minded Democratic elites. It’s easy to forget how skeptical this bloc historically has been toward the Clintons, whom they view as slick and scandal-stained opportunists. They rooted for the improbable Paul Tsongas in 1992, and for Bill Bradley over Al Gore in 2000.
The second was African-Americans. Bill Clinton overcame political adversity in 1992 and throughout his presidency in large measure because of support from African-Americans, but this time they went for Mr. Obama.
A collection of Hillary Clinton’s tactical campaign mistakes would be a thick book. But she lost the race because Mr. Obama summoned the support of one group that never much liked the Clintons — and of another group that always did until now.
— MARK HALPERIN, an editor at large at Time magazine, and JOHN F. HARRIS, the editor in chief of Politico. They are the co-authors of “The Way to Win.”
Divided She Fell
By ANA MARIE COX
Hillary Clinton’s 1998 invocation of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” put her squarely among those Richard Hofstadter classified as practitioners of the “paranoid style of American politics,” those for whom “what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.”
Barack Obama spoke of a world without these Manichean dualities. He dismissed the notion of “red” and “blue” America. He refused to demonize his preacher or Iran, and painted governance in a palette of grays.
Mrs. Clinton could not see anything in terms that were not — it pains me to use this metaphor — black and white.
Her view of the world was in turn embraced by the press that covered her, due in no small part to what Hofstadter might recognize as the paranoid style in American punditry. If she cried, surely it was because her campaign had focus-grouped the tears. If she exaggerated sniper fire, it was only because she thought she could get away with it. And if she mentioned an assassination, well, it might be prudent to beef up Mr. Obama’s Secret Service detail.
Few commentators allowed that she might be motivated by something as human as pride or as simple as unfounded optimism.
And if she saw a conspiracy in their coverage, well, this time she may have been right.
— ANA MARIE COX, the Washington editor of Radar and the founding editor of Wonkette.
Stuck to Iraq
By KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON
Had Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq proved uncontroversial, or had she provided a compelling explanation for it, she might now be the Democratic nominee.
Instead, she was saddled with a vote mistakenly remembered as an eager embrace of war.
Mrs. Clinton failed to persuade Mr. Obama’s antiwar coalition that she had voted to give President Bush the authorization to go to war as leverage to force weapons inspectors back into Iraq.
She failed as well to make real the context of a vote cast after the president declared that “approving this resolution does not mean that military action is imminent or unavoidable.”
As a result, key groups of Democrats tagged her as a candidate who abetted a Republican president’s unwarranted pre-emptive action.
— KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Boys on the Bias
By CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN
Fifteen years after I was elected New Jersey’s first female governor, women running for office continue to face huge obstacles.
Indeed, watching Hillary Clinton these last few months, it’s clear that voters and the news media still struggle with images and expectations of women as candidates.
When Mrs. Clinton made points forcefully, people called her shrill, not bold and determined. When Mitt Romney teared up, he was described as compassionate, while she was labeled weak.
For its part, the news media paid too much attention to Mrs. Clinton’s haircuts and jackets, ignoring the male candidates and their endless parade of blue suits and red ties.
The press presented Barack Obama with his two years in the Senate as an agent of change, not a novice. In contrast, ABC’s Charles Gibson asked Mrs. Clinton if she would “be in this position” if it weren’t for her husband.
To this day, a businessman with no elected experience is considered qualified for high public office; a woman with the same background is called unprepared.
Mrs. Clinton’s sex was not solely responsible for her loss, but the implicit and explicit challenges that women face are such that we as a country must take notice if we want all people represented in public service.
— CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN, the former Republican governor of New Jersey and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003.
An Accident Waiting to Happen
By MICHELLE COTTLE
At the Oct. 30 debate in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton could not explain whether she supported a proposal to provide driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants in New York.
No candidate could have survived this primary’s 1,018 debates without the occasional misstep. But her refusal to take a clear stand fit too neatly into the image of her as a slippery operator willing to say and do anything to win. And just like that, the 16-year stockpile of public ambivalence about and obsession with the Clintons boiled over.
Early in her public life, Mrs. Clinton was criticized for being a true believer. Many of her defining failures (think: health care) stemmed from an unwillingness to compromise or play politics. She was a zealot. A know-it-all. A thudding moralist who always knew best. But shifty? Valueless?
That was her husband, with his smooth talk, easy betrayals and parsing of what “is” is.
But by the time he left office, she had taken on the same baggage.
Political watchers will talk endlessly of how Bill Clinton hurt his wife’s campaign with his impolitic behavior. In truth, his behavior helped degrade her image more than a decade before she set foot on the trail.
— MICHELLE COTTLE, a senior editor at The New Republic
By L. DOUGLAS WILDER
Hillary Clinton’s campaign was done in by a sense of entitlement and hubris.
There is no greater evidence of that than the fact that, three days after the final two primaries in the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, she had yet to gracefully acknowledge her defeat.
By waiting so long, she threatened her future stature within the Democratic Party.
The question now should not be, “What about Hillary?” but rather, how does Mr. Obama plan to win and to lead — with or without Mrs. Clinton.
— L. DOUGLAS WILDER, the mayor of Richmond, Va., and the former Democratic governor of Virginia.
By HEATHER WILSON
The Democratic nominating system favors the most liberal candidate — in this case, Barack Obama.
But there is a second reason Hillary Clinton lost that some are reluctant to openly acknowledge: a latent and lamentable sexism. She lost because the superdelegates — the Democratic establishment — went against her.
She became a caricature: too smart, too strong, too assertive, too rational, too competent.
Think how the young Harry Potter and his male friends initially reacted to Hermione Granger and you get the idea.
— HEATHER WILSON, a Republican representative from New Mexico.
The Gentlewoman From Illinois
By BOB KERREY
I am a supporter of Hillary Clinton with an unusual perspective: I was defeated by her husband in the Democratic presidential race of 1992. I like her, I admire her and I am confident she would make a great president.
As a resident of New York, I am glad she is my junior senator, and I am proud of her performance in this campaign.
No doubt she’s feeling the disappointment that all of us who have lost races feel. And no doubt she is rewinding the tape to examine mistakes she made that cost her the nomination.
She shouldn’t be too hard on herself. If Barack Obama had been born 10 years earlier and had been a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1992, neither I nor Bill Clinton would have defeated him.
Focusing on her mistakes is an exercise in making someone who is already miserable even more so. As is true with every other walk of life, mistakes in politics shrink to insignificance if you win and are magnified beyond their actual importance if you lose.
The hard truth is that from the moment Mr. Obama announced his candidacy in Springfield, Ill., on Feb. 10, 2007, Mrs. Clinton was facing a candidate with greater skills than any candidate her husband had ever faced in his life.
So, the most accurate answer to the question of which of Mrs. Clinton’s mistakes was most costly is probably one I have heard from a number of people and has been written by many others: She and President Clinton should have moved back to her home state after they left the White House.
By doing so, she would have been elected the junior senator from Illinois in 2004, thereby reducing the chances that Mr. Obama would have been in a position to run against her.
— BOB KERREY, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska and the president of New School University.
Forced to Be a Pol
By JANE SWIFT
It is hard to be first. Hillary Clinton, the first viable female candidate for president, had to determine whether to run a traditional campaign that addressed the perceived challenges facing women (a strategy that worked in her successful Senate campaigns), or an alternative one that would have flaunted her gender.
Mrs. Clinton took the safe course.
At the time, it seemed the right thing to do. She answered the questions: Is she tough enough? Can she keep us safe? But her choice put her at odds with liberals in the primary electorate who wanted new and different, not tried and true.
For this reason, it was fatal.
— JANE SWIFT, a former Republican governor of Massachusetts and an education adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign.
By CARL BERNSTEIN
Faced with unanticipated adversity, Hillary and Bill Clinton took the low road too often, and voters noticed.
So did the party leadership and superdelegates, who abandoned her and the idea of a Clinton Restoration.
Barack Obama’s candidacy was the Clintons’ worst nightmare. They had dreamed of the day when an African-American could be elected president.
But they never anticipated it would happen on their watch and were utterly confounded.
— CARL BERNSTEIN, the author of “A Woman in Charge.”
By MICHAEL KINSLEY
For Democrats, it’s been a long time between swoons. Anyone younger than 60 was too young to vote in 1968, when Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy last stirred genuine excitement among Democratic voters.
Since then it’s been George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry. These men elicited support, agreement, admiration, maybe even enthusiasm.
But quit-your-job-and-join-the-cause passion? I’m afraid not.
This year, millions of Democrats swooned for Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton couldn’t do much about it. Suddenly, college students were registering to vote, and elderly widows were sending money.
No doubt the irony leaves Mrs. Clinton very, very bitter. She was supposed to be the candidate of “change.” By the mere fact of being a woman, she incarnated a revolution.
But then an even bigger revolution came along and her patient, methodical, I’m-a-normal-politician-in-all-respects-except-one approach left her representing the establishment.
The final death blow, however, was self-administered. The theme of this campaign has been umbrage. The candidates took turns pretending to be offended by something another candidate had said — or the other candidate’s failure to denounce what some third party had said.
All the candidates played this game, but Mrs. Clinton played it with the most unscrupulous joy. The low point was when she piled on during the ridiculous debate about whether Mr. Obama harbored snooty attitudes toward small towns in Pennsylvania.
So, at the end, when her own clumsy comment about Bobby Kennedy being assassinated in June was willfully misinterpreted to suggest that she was wishing that fate on her opponent, it served her right.
— MICHAEL KINSLEY, a columnist for Time magazine.
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