With the resignation of Hillary Clinton’s top – and highly overpaid – strategist, Mark Penn, the Clinton campaign once again appears to be a Keystone Cops operation. (Penn’s private public relations firm was lobbying for Colombia and Free Trade agreements precisely when Hillary Clinton was opposing expanding such agreements, or forging new ones). In 1992 and 1996 Bill Clinton did Better Than Expected, wowing observers with smart, disciplined, nimble campaigns. In 2008, Hillary Clinton has done far Worse Than Expected, depressing even many devotees with her cloddish, clunky, top-heavy, poorly managed and often clumsy campaign.
True, campaign reputations are often circular. In the all-or-nothing world of politics, winning campaigns become brilliant; losing campaigns become mismanaged. Sometimes, however, candidates have run great campaigns and lost – such as Ronald Reagan in 1976 against Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, and Gerald Ford in 1976 against Jimmy Carter for the Presidency. Reagan left Republicans so keyed up, his nomination in 1980 was virtually assured; Ford forded a 30 point gap in the public opinion polls, falling just short of winning.
Win or lose – and the contest is still not over – Hillary Clinton’s campaign will be remembered as a series of miscalculations and missed opportunities. The arrogance of her operation, dismissing Barack Obama’s challenge as insignificant and failing to develop a strategy after Super Tuesday, is inexcusable. The sloppiness of her operation, failing to find the Reverend Jeremiah Wright videotapes in December and January when they could have killed Obama’s campaign, or holding on to failing leaders for far too long is unjustifiable.
In the continuing American psychodrama that is the Clintons’ public life, the contrast between Bill Clinton’s professionalism and Hillary Clinton’s amateurishness is striking. It highlights the fact that Bill Clinton is both a natural and a well-practiced politician, trained in the art of wooing Americans for over thirty years. Despite all her self-puffery as a leader for three decades, Hillary Clinton is a relative newcomer to the art of selling yourself to the American people. She lacks her husband’s natural grace and his years of experience – and it shows.
But watching the debacle unfold, it is hard not to wonder if, once again, we have all been given front row seats to the latest round of the operatic Clinton marriage. Does Bill Clinton’s fall in the campaign from revered ex-president as rock star to overbearing political hack reveal some kind of unconscious death wish he has for her candidacy? Does Hillary Clinton’s inability to manage her people more effectively and her odd choice to resume her identity as Bill’s partner after eight independent years in the Senate spotlight reflect a deep neediness disguised as aggressiveness or loyalty?
Such speculation emerges because the story is so full of pathologies – and of anomalies. Hillary Clinton’s operation should have been as formidable as her husband’s, even if she lacks his experience. Could the first serious woman candidate for the American presidency be undermining herself somehow? Perhaps Clinton fatigue has not only set in among so many Democrats – but among the Clintons as well.