Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Where Clinton's campaign went wrong

From Saturday's Globe and Mail
May 31, 2008 at 12:01 AM EDT

WASHINGTON - "I'm in. And I'm in to win." Except she was late.

Hillary Clinton launched her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination via the Internet on a January Saturday in 2007, with a statement and a webcast, that found her seated on a sofa in a room that people with enough money call "comfortable."

"I'm not just starting a campaign, though," she maintained. "I'm beginning a conversation with you, with America … and while I can't visit everyone's living room, I can try."

But Barack Obama, a relatively little-known first-term senator from Illinois, had used the same medium to make the same announcement four days earlier. And he was already drawing ecstatic crowds wherever he went. And his latest book was No. 2 on the Times' best-seller list.

No one quite realized it at the time, but Barack Obama had jumped ahead of Hillary Clinton from Day 1, in ways that would only become clear over the coming year and a half. She's still trying to catch up.

The rules and bylaws committee will try to dispose, today, of the troublesome Florida and Michigan delegations, finding a way to seat them at the Democratic National Convention while penalizing them for breaking party rules.

Tomorrow, Puerto Rico holds its primary, with Montana and South Dakota following on Tuesday. And that's it.

Hillary Clinton must decide whether to end her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination once the primaries are over and there are no pledged delegates left to woo, or to carry on to the convention in August, even though defeat is virtually certain.

Whatever her decision, for Ms. Clinton the future is epilogue. For a decade and a half the continuing political psychodrama of America's most dysfunctional political dynasty has fascinated and, sometimes, repelled us.

But the season in which Hillary starred is nearing its end. There may be other plot lines, including a possible vice-presidency, but in all of them she is a minor character.

For almost a year and a half, Ms. Clinton has been campaigning relentlessly, seven days a week, most weeks, almost losing her voice at times, spending at least $11-million of her own money, and every cent of her political capital, only to lose.

How she failed presents a fascinating glimpse into the state of 21st-century American politics. But why she failed is simple.

Everything Hillary Clinton wanted to be, Barack Obama turned out to be also, only better.

Back in January of 2007, everyone knew that Hillary Clinton had this amazing political machine that would power her campaign for the White House, including a sophisticated Web presence.

But there was so much more. She had virtually exclusive access to the chequebooks in the Democratic fundraising pool. Her web of connections, oaths of fealty and debts owed spread throughout the Democratic Party, which she viewed as an extended family. And she was exciting, despite all the history that surrounded her and her brittle, embattled personality.

Hillary Clinton was going to be the first woman to become president of the United States, shattering what she likes to call "the highest and hardest glass ceiling," a testament to her generation's decades-long struggle to bring equality to women. And she was going to redeem America, turning the Bush era into a bad dream from which the people would finally awaken, ending the far-beyond-unpopular war in Iraq, restoring her nation's standing in the world, extending health-care coverage to millions who lived without it.

"She's unstoppable," John Catsimatidis, a member of Ms. Clinton's finance team, told a reporter in February, 2007. "She's got such a machine."

And that's exactly the way things looked nine months later. "If this were a wedding, we'd be at the 'speak now or forever hold your peace' part," Steve McMahon, a former Howard Dean adviser, concluded in October.

Mr. Obama's campaign was good at raising money, but not so good at getting the candidate's message across; he was 20 points back or more through much of the summer or fall. John Edwards's populist message seemed to have little appeal among mainstream Democratic voters. Bill Richardson's bid to become the first Hispanic presidential nominee was foundering.

Ms. Clinton dominated the plethora of candidates' debates, flaunting her ease of command and mastery of the issues. She seemed to have money to burn. Bill Clinton was a still-popular former president who, at least at first, appeared to strengthen rather than eclipse her campaign.

But though almost no one knew it at the time, she had already made too many mistakes.


Her former deputy campaign manager, Mike Henry, dimly grasped the challenge that Ms. Clinton faced but refused to recognize. In May, he wrote a memorandum that someone leaked to the press, urging Ms. Clinton not to campaign in Iowa, which leads off every primary season. It would cost her $15-million and 70 days of her time to be competitive in that contrarian Midwestern state, he wrote. And besides, Iowa and New Hampshire would no longer count as they once did.

"I think this old system is about to collapse, and it will happen this year because of the impact of primary elections that are being held on Feb. 5 …," he wrote. "This new focus forces us to rethink our overall strategy and assess where our time and money are best spent."

Mr. Henry understood what many of his colleagues and just about everyone in the media did not: that this race would not be settled in the wheat fields outside Des Moines, or the hamlets nestled in the New Hampshire hills. The winner would be the candidate with the money and organization to fight a protracted national campaign.

But Mr. Henry himself embraced another false assumption: that Super Tuesday would decide everything.

It seemed reasonable at the time. The new primary rules had encouraged states to move up their primaries to Feb. 5. More than 20 had done so, including the heaviest hitters: California, New York, Illinois. But no one in the Clinton camp was reading the rule book carefully enough.

According to one report, Ms. Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, confidently predicted at a meeting in 2007 that she would win the nomination on Feb. 5, because she would take California, with its massive haul of 370 delegates.

Harold Ickes, another senior adviser who was at the meeting, was appalled.

"How can it possibly be," he asked Mr. Penn, "that the much vaunted chief strategist doesn't understand proportional allocation?"

For as we were all about to learn, winning a state didn't mean much, unless you won by a lot.

Unlike the Republicans, with their winner-take-all strategy, Democrats apportioned delegates based on the percentage of the vote each candidate obtained in each state.

A close finish in any state resulted essentially in a draw.

The Obama campaign understood that. They were preparing a largely defensive campaign for Super Tuesday, ensuring that Ms. Clinton didn't run away with New York and California, while they secured their own base in states such as Georgia and Illinois.

Then they planned to carry the fight to the 16 primaries and caucuses that followed in the coming weeks.

Clinton campaign advisers ignored those states as they prepared for the big contests in Texas and Ohio in March, because they thought these big states mattered more, and because they couldn't afford to mount full campaigns everywhere even if they wanted to.

Throughout February, Ms. Clinton and her advisers watched helplessly as Mr. Obama rolled up state after state, often by huge margins.

By the end of the month, she had effectively lost.


So tactically, Ms. Clinton was defeated by a rule book she hadn't properly read. But that doesn't begin to explain who she lost to.

Hillary Clinton wanted to campaign on the theme of change, sweeping away the corrupt cronyism of George W. Bush's White House, restoring the rule of law in the war on terrorism, giving new hope to poor and working families.

Except that was Barack Obama's theme, too, and he said it so much better.

On a cold February day in 2007, he stood on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., to officially launch his campaign for president of the United States.

"Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done," he told a crowd of enthusiastic supporters. "Today we are called once more, and it is time for our generation to answer that call."

His winging oratory, evoking the cadences of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Winston Churchill, would electrify audiences as large as 75,000, with millions more experiencing the power of his words and voice on television.

Hillary Clinton would bring change to Washington? How was she supposed to compete with Barack Obama's promise of political transformation? The first woman in the White House? How can that compare with the first African-American in the White House?

From the moment he entered the race, Barack Obama undermined the foundations of Hillary Clinton's strategic message. He was more of everything that she was. Younger, cooler, more inspiring, more exotic.

But none of that mattered, if voters decided he wasn't credible. The Clinton campaign had to persuade Democratic voters and Democratic Party leaders that he was unknown and inexperienced, that she was the inevitable candidate. And right up until November, it looked as though she had pulled it off.

But there was one element of Mr. Obama's campaign she couldn't beat back or dismiss. He raised more money than she did. Ultimately, money would decide the campaign, but not in the way it usually does. How the money was raised mattered more than how much was raised.


Joe Raspers had helped set up Barack Obama's website. As the Illinois senator made his declaratory speech in Springfield, Mr. Raspers monitored the Web hits. And he was in awe. Within 24 hours, 1,000 people had registered to create locally powered Obama organizations in their community.

"You see 'Idaho for Obama' pop up and you start thinking, 'We might be on to something,' " he remembered later. "You could just see it in the first few hours that something was happening."

An electoral revolution was under way. Hillary Clinton ran a conventional 20th-century campaign, in which senior advisers directed a collection of paid organizers, who in turn recruited and organized local volunteers. Mr. Obama's advisers, including campaign manager David Plouffe and senior adviser David Axelrod, orchestrated a horizontal campaign, in which Obama enthusiasts networked with each other through my.barackobama.com. They blogged. They exploited Facebook and YouTube and MySpace. And they sent money. Boy, did they send money.

Ms. Clinton tapped the traditional wells of support from labour, business and the politically active and well heeled. But new campaign laws limited individual contributions to $2,300. Nonetheless, her machine pulled off the second-most impressive fundraising effort in the history of a nomination campaign, taking in $178-million as of April 30. The only problemwas, the effort paled in comparison to No. 1.

By the end of April, 2008, the Obama campaign had raised more than $265-million from 1.5 million donors. In last month's haul of $31-million, 94 per cent of donors contributed $200 or less.

Mr. Obama realized he would never be able to count on the traditional donors to the Democratic Party. They were with Ms. Clinton, the inevitable nominee. So the Obama campaign went around the party, appealing to independent voters, the young, the Internet savvy, everyone who was energized and excited by the candidate's unprecedented bid.

And rather than seeking donors who could give the maximum, he focused on supporters who would give 50 bucks, again and again.

But there was more to the revolution than money. Through their website, the Obama campaign offered phone-bank training and voters lists to supporters who wanted to start local organizations.

They took the risk of letting enthusiasts create their own brochures and craft their own messages, though they also inundated those local organizers with messages created at campaign central for their use.

As a result, when the first paid staffer did arrive in Idaho, he discovered that local volunteers had been campaigning for eight months and had even picked out the spot for campaign headquarters.

The grassroots, horizontal, locally powered campaign perfectly complemented Mr. Obama's vow to confront the vested interests in Washington on behalf of the common folk. Hillary Clinton promised change; Barack Obama manifested it.

Still, there were long days.

Through the summer and autumn of 2007, Mr. Obama lagged behind Ms. Clinton by double digits in polls.

His performance in debates was often as stiff and awkward as his performance in rallies was inspired.

Ms. Clinton even began to surpass him in fundraising. By November, the media had essentially written the Obama campaign off.

But unlike Ms. Clinton's senior advisers, who often bitterly and even publicly disagreed with each other, Mr. Plouffe and Mr. Axelrod stayed the course.

One small feature of this campaign is that there have been no damaging leaks from the Obama camp, not one significant story from a disgruntled adviser claiming that the Obama team was mishandling an issue, even during the furor over the comments by Mr. Obama's former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

Compare and contrast the Clinton campaign, where stories were legion of campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle closeted in her corner office, of chief strategist Mark Penn abusing and alienating staff.

"We would just cringe. Ugh," one anonymous source told the National Review. "Such an out-of-touch corporate-run kind of campaign; exactly what you'd expect from Mark Penn."

In early December, one of the world's most powerful women, Oprah Winfrey, toured the key states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina with Mr. Obama.

Event after event, he packed arenas and stadiums. Fifteen thousand, 18,000, 30,000 in Columbia.

African-American voters, now convinced that this candidate could represent their aspirations for equality and recognition by winning the White House, deserted Ms. Clinton suddenly and massively. The polls began to move. Reporters began to notice.

They also began to notice the strength of the Obama campaign's field operations, and the fervour of the thousands of young supporters who had never been involved in politics before but were dedicating their lives, it seemed, to this candidate.

On Jan. 3, Barack Obama proved the wisdom of that ignored memo from the Clinton staffer. He won Iowa, and suddenly his campaign was the one to beat. Ms. Clinton fought back, teared up and won New Hampshire. She managed a draw on Super Tuesday. But by then, her contributors had begun to max out, she had no grassroots operations in the smaller states, the African-American vote was forever lost to her. And the new and inevitable had become old and unlikely.

She fired senior staff. She threw her husband into the fray, then pulled him back when he angered black voters by comparing Mr. Obama to Jesse Jackson. Then she threw him back in again, because now she had to use every asset she had, no matter the risk.

She discarded the campaign, yet again. Now it would be about winning swing states and wooing superdelegates — senior party officials who would decide the outcome of this close race. Now it would be about who could win over poorer white voters in the Appalachian and Rust Belt swing states.

She threw out the change narrative and recast herself as a tough, experienced old bird who knew a lot more about the hen house than this rookie rooster. None of it was enough.

By May, his lead in pledged delegates and superdelegates had become insurmountable. Now, as far as Hillary Clinton's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is concerned, it's simply a question of when and how she leaves.


When he was first elected to the Senate, Barack Obama used to cite Hillary Clinton as the example he wanted to emulate.

"I deeply admire her because she is a workhorse, not a show horse," he said.

"People assumed that because of her fame and her position as first lady she was going to come in and spend a lot of time with press conferences.

"She spent a lot of time doing work, hard work, work that other people don't want to do."

They worked together on legislation; some viewed him as her political protégé. No more. Their coldness toward each other when forced to share the same physical space is palpable.

One friend of the campaign told this writer, and others have heard the same, that Hillary Clinton would never be vice-president because Michelle Obama detested her.

The two candidates are both professional politicians, and if each needs the other they may yet end up running on the same ticket. But the wounds are deep.

Ms. Clinton has taken to blaming sexism in the media for her troubles. Reporters haven't scrutinized Mr. Obama sufficiently, she claims, while belittling her chances and pushing her to drop out.

In fact, the media and Ms. Clinton share much in common. Both were stuck in the last decade. Both underestimated the grassroots strength of her opponent. Both failed to understand that the Internet had transformed campaign fundraising and organizing. Both never saw Barack Obama coming.

In every democracy, from Ukraine to the U.S.A., a revolution is brewing. A new generation is taking over the show. Their weapon is the Internet, and their strength is their own commitment to their champion, whenever he or she arises.

That champion is the politician who speaks for them, who embraces their dream of a more socially just society, which is the dream of every new generation. If you're a politician on the wrong side of this revolution, you will be swept away.

This is what Hillary Clinton, what so many of us, failed to understand. And so the revolution claimed her as its victim.

With reports from Associated Press, Time, the National Journal, The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune.

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