THE POLITICAL A TEAM FALTERS
Published on FoxNews.com on March 22, 2007.
They were supposed to be the A Team in American politics. The Clinton Machine that inspired fear and admiration throughout the political world.
They had guided Hillary through two successful Senate races in a state where she had never lived and helped her recover from scandals that nearly crippled her — the pardons, the White House gifts, the Peter Paul fundraiser.
They seemed invincible.
But ever since the presidential campaign started, the Clinton operation has looked amateurish, flat-footed, defensive, and tactically clumsy.They don’t seem to be at all ready for the big time.
Obama has repeatedly outmaneuvered Hillary’s campaign, and he’s gaining on her every minute. This week’s Rasmussen Poll has narrowed the race between them to a five-point lead by Hillary. It’s obvious that Obama is getting under the Clintons’ skin, and they’re responding in the only way they know: attack!
But, it’s not working.
This week they blundered once more when campaign strategist Mark Penn criticized Obama on the Iraq war issue at a Harvard seminar. In a transparently choreographed tirade, Penn echoed the same false charges about Obama that Bill Clinton had dropped at a private fundraiser days earlier. Taking a partial quote, Penn — and Bill Clinton — claimed that Obama had said that he was “unsure” of how he would have voted on the Iraq War Authorization Bill, if he had been in the Senate in 2002.
Penn and Clinton were wrong — and, of course, they knew that they were wrong, but they wanted to get some doubt about Obama out there to deflect criticism against Hillary. But mischaracterizing Obama’s positions was a dumb move.
Obama has been consistently against the war and there is a record to prove it. Obama instantly shot back with a video montage of all of his anti-Iraq war statements since 2002. And major news organizations, including The New York Times and ABC News carefully detailed Obama’s statements, and discredited Penn and the Clintons.
This comes on the heels of their previous idiotic attack on Obama for the unflattering remarks of Hollywood’s David Geffen.
And then there was the phony Southern accent in Selma.
What are they thinking?
The net effect of their amateur tactics has been a steady closure of the gap between Hillary and Obama to single digits in most surveys.
What’s wrong with the Clinton team?
Let’s remember that they really have not been tested for a long time. The last tough race the Clintons faced was in the presidential race in 1996. When Rudy Giuliani dropped out of the 2000 Senate contest in New York, Hillary’s election was virtually assured. She faced even weaker opposition in her bid for a second term last year. So this Clinton crew is not the battle-tested group that ran Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign campaigns in 1992 and 1996. It’s a bunch of relative newcomers without experience in a hotly contested national presidential primary.
And they’re not used to standing up to Bill and Hillary when they want to do foolish things. They really don’t know how to say no. Bill’s temper appears to have dictated the decision to attack Geffen and Obama for his criticism of the presidential pardons at the end of the Clinton term. One can imagine the former president ranting and raving about the attacks and can see his staff meekly following his instructions to go out and avenge his honor.
For Hillary’s part, her intrinsic stubbornness — and slavish adherence to the gurus of the Senate Armed Services Committee who back the war — probably accounted for her recent ill-tied announcement of support for maintaining a large troop commitment in Iraq, even after she assumes she becomes president. It is seriously doubtful that the men and women around Hillary know how to stand up for what is sound political judgment in the face of her obstinacy.
The operatives that surround the Clintons these days are also used to general elections, not to primaries. Bill and Hillary have not faced a Democratic Primary of any consequence since 1992. (Clinton faced no primary in 1996 and Hillary had none in 2000. Her primary opposition in 2006 was minor and totally without funding). But in the fifteen years since a Clinton faced a real primary contest, the Democratic Party has changed.
Mark Penn, the chief strategist of the Hillary campaign, is a man of the middle, schooled in moving candidates to the center to win general elections. The left in general — and Democratic primaries in particular — are foreign territory to him. He’s not used to their strange dynamics. And the anti-war left, with its ferocity, arrogance, and insistence on making candidates toe the line, is particularly foreign to his political experience.
Penn is also highly skilled at thematic politics. He brought to the 1996 Clinton campaign such insights as the importance of speaking optimistically about the economy and of focusing on values issues. But Mark Penn is “no issue” person. He doesn’t understand how to use substantive differences and new proposals to win elections. If he worked on a newspaper, he’d be the features editor, leaving the hard news to others. As a result, Hillary has no issues beyond being the first woman to run for president. And biography, no matter how compelling, is no substitute for issues.
For her part, Hillary is a very rigid candidate. She has set ideas of what she should be doing and doesn’t take kindly to criticism. She is inclined to bite off the head of anyone who crosses her or gives her advice that is at variance with wants to do. Between her staff’s sycophancy and Hillary’s self-conceit, theirs is not the ideal relationship to have atop a presidential campaign.
Hillary’s other man of the moment is Howard Wolfson, her untelegenic spokesman. He lacks Penn’s experience, but makes up for it in his aggression. An attack dog, he reinforces the worst in Hillary Clinton. As a politician, Hillary has always confused toughness with effectiveness. She values warriors who will slay dragons on her behalf but doesn’t really grasp the limitations of slash and burn politics.
Both Hillary and Wolfson came up the hard way — battling to keep Bill in office through impeachment and scandal, fighting against the media when her integrity was questioned during the pardon scandal, and surviving the slings and arrows of New York politics. But now they must operate in a much more subtle arena.
Barack Obama is not just an opponent. He is a role model for tens of millions of African-Americans. Whether or not they vote for him, at some level all Americans — except for a racist few — are rooting that it will be possible for a presidential candidate to cross the color barrier. The straight ahead, attack at all costs and all times strategy that dominates the Wolfson/Hillary playbook is counterproductive. But neither candidate nor spokesman seem to know what else to do.
With a team like this, and a candidate like Hillary, it is no wonder that Obama is surging while she is stalling.
But where is Bill Clinton? Why has he not brought his political skills to bear?
Bill Clinton is obviously used to campaigns in which he is the candidate. His effortless attractiveness and charisma have always lain at the center of his political strategy. Even in failure, he has been able to charm voters and show his empathy with their pain. Nobody who has run a campaign for Bill Clinton has ever had to worry about his candidate’s performance. It was always superb.
Hillary is no Bill Clinton. Her awkward starchiness and strident monotones contrast with his warmth and effusion. She can’t charm. She can only confront and debate. She lacks all of his many political skills. Bill Clinton is just not used to winning elections with a mediocre candidate.
Can Hillary and her politically challenged staff overcome the obstacles that lay before her? Probably, despite Obama’s gains, she has lost few of her own voters and her base of feminist women is holding pretty strong amid her campaign’s goofs and failures. As her candidacy generates increasing turnout among single women, she will probably still be able to eke out a victory — unless she stays on the same strategic track that she’s on now.
But her own rigidity, arrogance, and refusal to listen to criticism and her staff’s sycophancy and fear of the candidate sure aren’t helping any.