Saturday, January 5, 2008

Clinton's Ongoing Theme

On TV this morning I heard a Clinton surrogate, Ann Lewis, repeat a refrain I've heard from Hillary over and over again several times during the last few weeks, which sounds something to the extent of: "I have 35 years experience of being a change agent."

Be that as it may, this line just doesn't jive for me on several accounts. The first is the seeming contradiction between "experience" and "change." They just don't seem to go together. The only person in the last 35 years that I can think of who has that much experience causing change is Madonna.

Second is the emphasis on the "experience" part of the equation. I know I'm not the first person to say this, but in a lot of ways I think Hillary has fallen into the same trap that Bill set for Bob Dole in '96. When Dole said he wanted to build a bridge to the past, Bill skillfully inverted the formula and told voters he was looking to build a bridge to the future. "Experience," at least in the way Hillary seems to be talking about it, is backward looking.

The problem with looking back these days is that, while the '90s may not have been that long ago chronologically speaking, they were an eternity ago on a sheer events-per-capita basis (if you will). What's gone on in the last eight years has been enough to fill half a dozen administrations and Hillary advisers don't seem to grasp that.

In a lot of ways the Bush mantra that "9/11 changed everything!" is true. While certainly not in the way it's been used to justify every form of government action from war to the erosion of various civil liberties, the phrase does ring true on a fundamentally psychological level. We, as a country, can't go back to the go-go '90s and on a very basic level everyone understands that.

And even if we could, what would that say about American society? One of the great things about being an American is that we are always looking for progress, we're always looking to expand our horizons. Sometimes that that leads to less-than-desirable enterprises, like Manifest Destiny, but other times this drive gets us to the Moon. Hillary's basic message is to ignore this very American impulse, and when you throw in all the very personal baggage she's been carrying with her for the last two decades it's no wonder she's been hemorrhaging support in the last few weeks.

The weird thing is that Bill knows this and has been ignored. His appearances on the campaign trial may have been yielding mixed results, but the dude should be listened to behind the scenes. Right now Clinton has little left to resort but to go negative and start throwing some serious punches. But shes has two things going against her. The first is time. New Hampshire votes in three days and the Clinton camp clearly hasn't retooled its message. The second is its track record of going negative, which has been dismal. Those two factors will start to put the squeeze on Clinton independent of the Obama steamroller that's currently pushing her to the side of the party.

So, really, what's left for Hillary if the messaging is off, the negative attacks haven't been working and the clock is ticking? The only thing I can think of is for an aggressive "All hands on deck!" call in New Hampshire, where the Clinton family roots run fairly deep. The campaign would almost double down on staff and resources to try to bring out it's base in state and start to call in every favor they feel they are owed. That can't hurt them among Democrats, but it will not be enough in a state with a huge independent voter population.

MORE: From the NY Times by way of Andrew Sullivan:

One longtime adviser complained that the campaign’s senior strategist, Mark Penn, realized too late that “change” was a much more powerful message than “experience.” Another adviser said Mr. Penn and Mr. Clinton were consumed with polling data for so long, they did not fully grasp the personality deficit that Mrs. Clinton had with voters.

Advisers said that both Clintons had miscalculated the endurance and depth of what they called “the Obama phenomenon.” They both believed that, in the final months of 2007, more voters would question whether Mr. Obama was ready to be president and more reporters would pick apart his political record and personal character. Now anger inside the campaign at the news media has hardened; Mr. Clinton, in particular, believes reporters will be complicit if Mr. Obama becomes the nominee and loses to a Republican.

(emphasis added)

Blaming the media -- the last refuge of scoundrels!

Well, not really ... often times it's entirely justified. But the hardest thing for a campaign to do is to look at itself and evaluate what kind of problems are occurring internally. That's clearly not happening. Which may mean that the people running Clinton's campaign, which are primarily devoted loyalists who have been with the Clintons for ages by now, may be suffering from a combination of "groupthink" and arrogance that they -- and only they -- know what's best for the country. In short, the same "bunker mentality" that has been symptomatic of the current Bush Administration.

For some more of my thoughts on Penn, see here.

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