Clinton knew it was do or die. All the campaign staffers and the media agreed that without a big win Tuesday, the campaign was over. The ultimately winning strategy entailed putting the media and the opposition on the defensive, and tempering this negativity with the right pop-culture flourish.
While the above describes Hillary Clinton’s impressive comeback this past Tuesday, with decisive wins in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island, it also describes Bill Clinton’s incredible comeback in 1992. Bill Clinton became the “Comeback Kid” by scoring impressively – not even winning – in the New Hampshire primary after being devastated by Gennifer Flowers’ reports of her lengthy affair with him, and by the scandal surrounding his creative feints to avoid being drafted in 1969. Perhaps the defining moment in Clinton’s turnaround occurred on Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” show. Smoldering just enough, he delivered a line a consultant fed him: “All I’ve been asked about by the press are a woman I didn’t sleep with and a draft I didn’t dodge.” Later in the spring, when Governor Clinton’s poll numbers sagged yet again, he donned cool sunglasses and whipped out his saxophone to play some tunes on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” Once again, his approval ratings soared.
Hillary Clinton became the Comeback Queen this week by making these familiar moves from the Clinton playbook. She jumped on a Saturday Night Live skit accusing the press of coddling Barack Obama, by sarcastically suggesting that reporters should offer her rival a pillow to make him comfy during their debate. She was so pleased with Saturday Night Live’s assistance, she guest-hosted days later. And while pummeling the press for handling Senator Obama with kid gloves, Senator Clinton and her staffers roughed him up over his friendship with a shady Chicago operator, over his NAFTA two-step, wherein one of his advisers supposedly reassured the Canadian embassy not to worry about his anti-Free Trade demagoguery, and over his general inexperience, especially on national security matters.
Exit polls showed that most of the voters who decided in the last two weeks chose Hillary Clinton. In Ohio, exit polls showed that Midwestern voters thought she would make a better Commander in Chief than Barack Obama by 57 percent to 40 percent. Those kinds of numbers suggest that Americans do not have a problem with a woman at the helm and that much of the opposition she has encountered is more aimed at her specifically, than at women in general.
Ironically, while following her husband’s lead, Hillary Clinton shrewdly kept him under wraps. Unlike in South Carolina, where Bill Clinton overestimated how loyal African-Americans would be to him when faced with the first African-American candidate in history with a real shot at the White House, the former President was relatively subdued in Ohio and Texas.
Senator Clinton re-learned what she had realized throughout her senatorial career: that Bill Clinton simply commands too much attention, and undermines her claim to be an independent national leader – even when he is not overplaying his hand. Senator Clinton also re-learned the lessons of 1992 – and much of the White House years – Americans do not want a husband-wife co-presidency. Voters recoiled when the Clintons pitched “two for the price of one” on the campaign trail in 1992. Hillary Clinton saw that her poll ratings sagged when Americans feared she was overstepping, and that her popularity as First Lady increased when she kept to more traditional First Lady-like roles.
John McCain and his fellow Republicans are delighting in their opponents’ predicament. The Democrats now have two strong candidates with legitimate claims to be considered the most viable nominee. And both candidates have masses of supporters who risk being deeply disappointed – and alienated – if their candidate loses. Barack Obama still retains a slight yet possibly insurmountable lead in the number of delegates won in the Democratic parties’ particularly complicated nominating process. But having won New York, California, Texas, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey and with a strong lead in Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton now can claim that she holds the key to winning the states with the biggest electoral vote totals, and some of the most critical swing states for the November general election.
Once again, the curse of the Clintons worked its black magic – negative campaigning swayed the electorate. Predicting electoral outcomes has proved to be a tricky business this campaign season. But it is a reasonably safe prediction to make that, in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s wins and Barack Obama’s losses on Tuesday, both are going to be tempted to keep going negative. Hillary Clinton has already drawn blood, and has no choice but to continue trying to drain excitement and credibility from the Obama phenomenama.
Obama has to figure out how to be aggressive enough to show he is tough – on the campaign trail as well as in the Oval Office if he wins – without being so nasty that he loses the aura of hope he has built up with his Yes We Can message of healing. And even though the Clintons scored some points against the media, sending reporters scrambling to prove that they had not been too soft on Obama, political reporters must be thrilled. They were the big winners Tuesday, as this already most compelling election season just received a new surge and a guarantee of continued excitement – and front-page coverage.
(first published in the Montreal Gazette, March 6, 2008)