Recently asked by Chris Matthews about Barack Obama's accomplishments, Jim Doyle, the governor of Wisconsin and an Obama supporter, listed his candidate's presidential campaign among various achievements. Lanny Davis, the Clintons' pitbull du jour, predictably scoffed. But why? Surely the way a campaign is run, especially one as long and complicated as this year's Democratic primary, says a lot about a candidate's management ability, discipline, stamina, salesmanship, and a host of other skills that are critical to governing.
Of course, it is understandable why Davis and other Clinton backers would rather ignore the way Hillary Clinton has managed the current contest. By any measure, her operation has been inferior to Obama's, although significantly better than any of the Republicans'. John McCain's dogged roller-coaster of a campaign does not bode particularly well for his presidency (it's actually likely to preempt it), and his was the best of the bunch, it seems, since he will be the nominee.
Many in the media, mainstream and other, attribute Clinton's inability to contain Obama's insurgency to some irrational messianic pull he supposedly holds over Americans. This is also Bill Clinton's new line of attack, which is funny as he never questioned voters' ability to make a rational decision when he, a deeply flawed governor of a tiny state, was plucked from obscurity and elected to the presidency on the wings of Ross Perot's own bizarre run. The messianic angle is demeaning to Obama and to those who are voting for him, and it doesn't begin to tell the story of his near-flawless campaign to date, and of Clinton's own management failures.
Obama's team, opportunistic, experienced (yes) and passionate, built its financial and marketing operation in a breathtakingly disciplined and strategic manner. With some luck, of course, and a "product" in Obama that was a far better fit with the spirit of the times than most had anticipated, the campaign has succeeded in launching a likely future president from scratch, in a little over a year.
Clinton, on the other hand, did not see Obama coming and dismissed him as an arriviste who would soon enough realize that he should wait his turn and embrace a Clinton restoration. This lack of vision by the candidate herself was compounded by her senior staff, a deeply unappealing group whose arrogance continues to damage her campaign, and who seem unable to convey the most basic truths to their boss. That she has surrounded herself with relative incompetents such as Mark Penn, Howard Wolfson and Patti Solis Doyle is obviously one of her biggest failings, and should give pause to anyone reflecting on the kind of staffing choices she would have to make as president.
The much-vaunted discipline of the first six months of her campaign was never really put to the test, as voters did not tune in until mid-December even in the earliest states, and Clinton was riding high on a wave of name recognition. By the time control was needed, after an Iowa third place that should have never happened to begin with, discipline was in very short supply: Bill and other surrogates went completely off message, in-fighting and blaming began and, most shockingly, money ran dry. That Clinton blew through $100 million in a few months with so little to show for it is a problem in itself. More frighteningly, though, she appeared oblivious about her burn rate and the potential effects on her campaign, a terrible indictment of her financial management skills. Again, this is not exactly what one would be looking for in a president, especially one who is touting her ability to manage the economy back to recovery. Administering a campaign's finances is not exactly a complex task when compared to managing the multi-billion dollar US federal government budget.
Then there is the message: ever-changing, crude, increasingly bitter and in deep contrast to Obama's constantly hopeful image. It is mind-boggling that the Clinton campaign could have failed to understand the importance of two key factors: the yearning for change, and the distaste for the street-fighting brutality that is the Clintons' trademark. On change, one poll after another showed it at the top of Democratic and independent voters' priorities. Clearly, Clinton was aware of this, as evidenced by her abrupt adjustment in time for New Hampshire. It may be that the campaign then reverted back to the experience tack because it felt she was an implausible change agent, but, to put it bluntly, it was never clear either that her kind of experience mattered. The US presidency is notorious for shutting itself off from Americans' everyday realities, but to be so out of touch with voters' feelings even before making it (back) to the White House is unusual (even George W. Bush's campaign somehow managed to tap into something with its retrospectively grotesque compassionate conservatism propaganda).
Clinton's post-Iowa reworked message morphed into increasingly personal, angry and entitled attacks on Obama as a talker not a doer. It is at that point, especially as South Carolina was looking to be a complete bust, that the campaign should have felt that primary voters would not tolerate the type of aggression that the Clintons practice as a matter of course, especially since Hillary wasn't under unusually belligerent pressure. But the Clintons and their court simply don't know any better, and it is far too easy to picture a Clinton White House in 2009 that throws us back to the darkest dysfunction of Bill's presidency, and the inevitable political paralysis this would cause.
To this day, the campaign just doesn't get the silliness of slogans that, for instance most recently, paint Clinton as a hard worker (we ASSUME presidential candidates are hard workers; are they saying Obama has been on vacation for the past 15 years?). The Clintons don't get that the constant petty jabbing and maneuvering (plagiarism! hot air! disenfranchised delegates!) should be way, way below them and that, in the end, it irredeemably cheapens her candidacy, making her look anything but presidential. It is a remarkable feat that it also makes her husband, a two-term president, look anything but presidential. And it plays into the worst stereotypes of Hillary as a small-minded and dishonest conniver who doesn't understand why she may be denied what she deems to be (and has been told is) her due. With this in mind, how on earth do we expect that a Clinton presidency could take anything but the low road, with little to show for its fights except power itself?
Hillary Clinton is not a straightforward sell, but she is smart, hard-working (yes) and accomplished, and with well over $100 million to package her in the primary alone, what a dreadful job she, her husband and her surrogates have done. It is tragic that this woman alone on the road, more or less Huckabee-style, with Bill tucked away in Chappaqua, may well have achieved far more than her current humiliating showing, if only because it wouldn't have further darkened the couple's legacy. But of course she'd want us to know that she ultimately determined how to run her campaign and that decision tells us a lot about what kind of a president she would be. Or would have been.