By Dick Morris on December 21, 2007


Volume 1, #23

December 21, 2007


Barring a last minute change in the polls, Hillary Clinton now seems headed for the rocks in both Iowa and New Hampshire. In each state, she is trailing Barack Obama by three points or more in recent polls, despite having held double digit leads less than a month ago.

And she doesn‘t show signs of getting well any time soon. She‘ll win the Michigan primary, one week after New Hampshire, but only because Obama and Edwards took their names off the ballot in deference to the decree of the Democratic National Committee to punish the state for moving its primary up early by staying out of the race. Hillary, who entered anyway, now has no real opposition there.

But after Michigan comes Nevada and South Carolina. She may do well in Nevada, but South Carolina blacks are likely to be energized by seeing Obama‘s victories in Iowa and New Hampshire and may swamp Hillary‘s forces.

Can she recover when Florida votes on January 29th or when the rest of the big states ballot on February 5th? Perhaps, but she‘s dug herself into a deep, deep hole.

What‘s going wrong? Let us count the ways.

Experience Doesn‘t Work; Change Does

Her biggest blunder is her embrace of experience as her theme song, vacating the theme of change for Obama and Edwards. By tying herself to the past, she let them co-opt the future.

The campaign realized its error in the past week and Bill Clinton, appearing on the Charlie Rose show, explicitly reversed course and called his wife an "agent of change." But voters are doing Hillary the massive disservice of listening to what she and her surrogates have been saying to months – that she can "hit the ground running from day one" because she has been there, in the White House, helping to run the country.

While she has been trying to persuade voters that it was really Hillary that piloted the nation to prosperity in the 90s and Hillary who negotiated the Irish peace accords and Hillary who balanced the budget and Hillary who was the "face" of the Clinton Administration‘s foreign policy, Obama and Edwards have been identifying with the need for change. She‘s in the wrong place in the wrong primary to run on experience. It is Republicans, with their cautious conservatism, who value experience. Democrats are the party of change.

But both words – experience and change – are really codes for negative attacks on the other side.

When Hillary touts her experience, she is hitting Obama‘s in experience. Sensing that his Achilles heel is his limited service in the Senate, Hillary (who has served only four more years in the Senate) stresses her tenure as a way of highlighting Obama‘s lack of it. But Hillary, pressed for specifics of her experience, doesn‘t talk about her time in the Senate. Instead she seeks to co-opt Bill‘s presidential record, looking phony in the process.

But by trying to sell the idea that she was co-president in the 90s, she runs right into the buzz saw Obama and Edwards have created by using their own code word – change. Change means breaking the dynastic alternation of Bushes and Clintons. It means not going back to the 90s, however nostalgic and misty eyed Democrats may get for the good old days. So by wrapping herself in experience, Hillary makes herself part of the past and the dynastic alternation, further digging herself into a hole.

Stupid Attacks On Obama

There‘s nothing wrong with negative campaigning, but Hillary is breaking all the rules about how to do it:

  1. If you are going negative, make the shots count. Running negatives exacts a high price both from the victim of the attack and from its author. Told that a candidate is a horse thief, voters are less likely to back him, but are also turned off by his opponent for throwing the accusation.

    So if you are going to get the rap for being negative, you better make sure that the shots hit hard, preferably with lethal impact. Don‘t leave the other person still standing.

    But Hillary has been throwing trivial negatives. She criticized Obama for plotting a presidential run in kindergarten. She had her surrogate say that he may have used cocaine later in life than he has admitted. She said his health care plan will leave some uncovered (about 5% of the country). These are not negatives which will knock anyone out. The price of throwing them isn‘t worth their impact on the target.

  2. And she‘s throwing the negatives herself. Attack your opponent in ads with an announcer gravely intoning about his sins. Use a spokesperson. Use those who endorse your candidacy. Don‘t do it yourself. Especially not if you are a woman and more so if you are known as ruthless and strident. But Hillary has been hitting Obama herself, day after day. She looks bad doing it and she cuts against her media campaign to warm her up by featuring her Mom‘s testimonial to what a great person she really is. She looks awful making the attacks.
  3. When you hit with a negative, you can never tell where the rebound goes. If candidate A attacks candidate B, both get hurt. Candidate C will likely benefit. And, sure enough, John Edwards has been moving up steadily in national polls from the low teens to the mid teens. You don‘t throw negatives in an eight way race. It is only in a two way contest that they make political sense. You may look bad for going negative, but your opponent looks worse after people hear your charges against him. And, in a two way race, there‘s noplace else for the voters to go but back to you.

The Bill Clinton Fallacy

Hillary‘s solution to her fall has been to bring out Bill to fight for her. But in doing so, she has triggered a range of unintended consequences that have weakened her further.

  1. She looks weak depending on her husband. Can you imagine Margaret Thatcher getting her husband Dennis to criticize the Argentine Junta on her behalf? Hillary‘s big advantage has always been her strength and outspokenness. Voters see her as a fearless warrior. But by hiding behind her husband, she kindles doubts about whether she has the starch to be a strong president on her own.
  2. And it hurts Bill Clinton‘s image to come out swinging. His high ratings now are based on his above-the-battle statesmanlike efforts to help AIDS patients in Africa, mitigate the damage of the Tsunami, and rebuild the Gulf after Katrina. His new book, Giving, seeks to put him on this lofty perch. But when he leaves it and comes down into the gutter to punch out Hillary‘s rivals, he lowers his ratings and loses his ability to help her.
  3. Finally, by bringing Bill into the race, Hillary reminds us of the worst of the Clinton years. Their dysfunctional marriage, his parsing of the language to dodge and weave through controversy, his tendency to get down and dirty in fighting opponents are all unattractive and do him..and her..no good.

Can She Recover?

Unfortunately, yes. By losing New Hampshire and Iowa, Hillary moves out of the spotlight. She is no longer the story. The focus will shift to Obama. And Democratic doubts about his political viability in a general election will haunt his candidacy.

Democrats pride themselves on not being racist. But they don‘t trust others not to be so. Plenty of party loyalists will wonder if they should back the first African-American to run for president with the White House on the line.

Of course, neither Hillary or Bill would be caught dead exploiting this vulnerability. But they‘ll do it in a way they won‘t get caught.

Bill will criticize Obama – as he did on Charlie Rose – as a "roll of the dice." He‘ll raise the spectre of his limited experience and call his candidacy a "risk." He will pretend to be speaking about Obama‘s recent arrival on the national stage, but his words will be code for race. The roll of the dice won‘t be on whether a man can be president having only served four years in the Senate. It will be whether the Democratic Party can entrust its national fate to a black candidate.

It will be the perfect negative – sufficiently politically correct to be useable but also dirty enough to be effective.

From every quarter of the Democratic Party, Senators and Governors will pay off their debt to Hillary for having raised them campaign funds over the past eight years (which is what she has really been doing in the Senate) by questioning if Obama is too risky. The word risk will permeate the dialogue as super Tuesday looms and will take big chunks out of Obama‘s vote.

Also, we can‘t count out Edwards. He‘ll do well enough in Iowa to stay alive and might survive New Hampshire too. With the North Carolinian still in the race, the anti-Hillary vote will be split, which could help her to recover.

Can she recover? Of course she can. But will she? Right now, it‘s a 50-50 bet. I want to say no, but don‘t ever count these folks out.

And For The Republicans… Can Rudy Recover? Is Huckabee For Real? Is McCain Coming Back? And Is Romney Still In it?

Yes to all of the above.

The most likely scenario is for a very crowded Republican field that only begins to sort itself out on January 15th when Michigan votes and only anoints a winner on Super Tuesday – if by then!

The opening rounds will likely be a split decision with Huckabee winning Iowa and Romney winning New Hampshire. Michigan will be the tie-breaker. Pundits will wonder if Huckabee can win outside of a small, Midwest state like Arkansas or Iowa and if Romney can win far from his Massachusetts home. Michigan will give the answer. Unless they finish tied, or virtually so, only one will emerge standing.

Which one? Hard to tell. But Huckabee gets the edge. He‘s the only social conservative running. Rudy is pro choice. Romney was pro choice two years ago. McCain alienated the pro lifers by his campaign finance reform. And Thompson lobbied for abortion rights in the 90s.

The dominant emotion on the right is fear of Giuliani, concern that the party may be captured by its old Rockefeller-Ford wing, trampling Reagan‘s legacy.

The battle between Romney and Huckabee is really a clash of the economic Republicans against the social conservatives. Wall Street battles Main Street; the boardroom squares off against the pulpit; the country club fights the bowling alley. An attractive latter day Steve Forbes goes up against an articulate latter day Gary Bauer.

In a two way fight, Romney would probably prevail. But there is now a third wing of the Republican Party – the National Security conservatives who worry more about terror than taxes or abortion. Rudy Giuliani is their quintessential candidate and McCain is a good backup. With them skimming off votes that would otherwise go to Romney, Huckabee – who will increasingly win the religious vote – probably prevails.

Rudy Giuliani will lose Iowa and New Hampshire. But his problems won‘t end there. John McCain is gaining in Iowa, propelled by the Des Moines Register endorsement. The latest polls have McCain at 6% and Rudy at 10%. If McCain passes Giuliani in Iowa, he probably can beat him in New Hampshire too. The Arizona Senator is now two points ahead of Rudy there, capitalizing on his residual popularity in the state that gave him his primary victory in 2000.

The John McCain of 2008 is not the same as the McCain of 2000 because he is stripped of his most potent weapon – the Independent voter. In 2000, it was his ability to carry Independents that pushed him to the win in New Hampshire. He lost Republicans to Bush. But now Independents are all voting in the Democratic Primary, for or against Hillary Clinton. If Hillary loses in Iowa, you can bet none of the Independents will stray into the Republican contest. Hillary is too polarizing and Obama too interesting.

If Rudy beats McCain in Iowa, he‘ll probably pass him in New Hampshire. Even if he loses these first two primaries, he can likely come back and do very well in Michigan. Even if Huckabee or Romney beat him there, a good second place finish will let him continue down the road to Florida. And in the Sunshine State – and in the Super Tuesday states – Rudy can definitely come back.

But don‘t count out the winner of the Romney/Huckabee semi-final. Whichever one wins, he will be a formidable opponent to Giuliani and will win a lot of states (read: Texas, the rest of the south, and maybe California). Rudy probably wins anyway but it could be tough.

But Rudy may not finish above McCain in Iowa. And therefore he may not beat him in New Hampshire. Rudy is too strong to die or be knocked out by these early defeats, but he may end up with a three way race on Super Tuesday with McCain draining his votes.

For that matter, Romney, who can write any size check he wants, might not drop out even if Huckabee beats him in Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, and South Carolina. He may reason that Huckabee can‘t get enough money fast enough to offset his bottomless check book, giving him a big advantage when all thirty states vote at once on February 5th.

So there is a good chance of a four way race on Super Tuesday. The candidates could be: Huckabee, coming off a string of primary wins, Romney, with a New Hampshire win under his belt and a big checkbook at his disposal, Giuliani, the residual 9-11 favorite, and McCain, still standing after strong showing in the early primaries.

That could lead to a real convention fight down the road. Were the calendar longer and the primaries more stretched out, there would likely be time for a consensus winner to emerge. The losers would face night after night of concession speeches whose cumulative effect would be lethal. But with everybody voting at once, momentum may not have time to assert itself and you could have four candidates duking it out on the floor of the convention.

(Or, more likely, a 1976 Ford v Reagan scenario where the later primaries in the final fifteen or so states – and the statutory super delegates — determine the nominee.)

Either way, this is shaping up as the most interesting presidential race in decades.



***Copyright Eileen McGann and Dick Morris 2007. Reprints with permission only***

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