Clinton Spinning Into Twilight Zone

It all started in Iowa: Hillary Clinton was the underdog, her husband told us as the polls were tightening, because she wasn't as well known in the state as John Edwards and Barack Obama. Clinton, one of the most famous women in the world (including Iowa), had an awareness deficit against a failed former vice-presidential candidate and a freshman Senator from a neighboring state. It wasn't her organization, her positions, her character, the campaign told us. It was that people didn't know her. And also that she hadn't REALLY tried in Iowa (as opposed to New Hampshire, where she made sure we realized how hard she had worked). She came in third, but Bill reassured us that she had expected it all along.

No one is asking Clinton or Obama to look gloomy every time they lose a state or to publicly excoriate themselves and their campaign when polls are down. But when facts are so blatantly and verifiably the opposite of what is being said, one enters the Bill O'Reilly zone, and that is a very uninspiring place to be. As with everything else, the Clintons don't know when to stop with the spin, and their campaign's pronouncements now often veer into a bizarre alternate universe that is funny, yet vaguely Stalinist in its denial of the most transparent truth.

Rudy Giuliani, who for months managed to convince the mainstream media that all was well with his one-delegate campaign, and Fred Thompson, who didn't have to work that hard (which he liked) to get billing as Reagan's 21st century heir, are sad amateurs compared to Clinton. Not a day goes by in the thick of this campaign when we don't ask ourselves: do her press people and assorted endorsers really think we're that stupid? Yes, they do, and perhaps we are. Isn't the increasingly noisy drumbeat about the warped primary system coming from the Clinton campaign finding its way hourly into hundreds of blogs, articles and broadcasts? And aren't there only occasional, and remarkably mild, qualifiers about how recent the Clintons' conversion is to a "fair" primary system?

Immediately after Iowa, the Clinton campaign questioned the validity of the state's caucuses in stark terms (this was a short-term, possibly desperate tactic, considering the importance of the swing state in November as well as in January). This was quite a jolt, as the Clinton crowd never complained about caucuses (and certainly not about Iowa) until she started losing every single one of them.

Nor, of course, did Clinton disavow the Democratic National Committee for its stance on Florida and Michigan until she desperately needed the delegates from those "contests," where she was essentially unopposed after the DNC deemed them illegitimate. Then, she said, those states' voters were being disenfranchised, a particularly explosive claim in Florida. Surely Clinton knows that it is impossible that the January votes in those states will be counted, and either she is looking for sympathy (no matter how instrumental she was in depriving the two states of their delegates) or she is looking for a scandal that will make the Supreme Court's 2000 presidential election decision in favor of George W. Bush look fair and balanced.

Nor did Clinton snub her nose at the proportional representation rules in the Democratic primaries and caucuses until she won the bigger states by relatively small margins and lost all others by landslides. The race would have been over, Clinton campaign pollster Mark Penn said, had the primary been a winner-take-all system (not only is this inaccurate, true to form, but it is also a mystery how a GOP-style system would have made the contest more democratic). We were also told that this whole delegate thing was terribly unfair, as Clinton was winning the "popular vote;" that was barely true on Super Tuesday (48.7% to 48.4%), but five days later, that too, proved wrong when four states overwhelmingly voted for Obama (in caucuses and, yes, primaries). Given the twisted and blindingly diverse ways of counting votes, it's hard to judge who is winning the popular vote, but if Clinton was ahead by so little on Tuesday by that measure, it's fair to say she is now behind.

The spinning absurdity reached a paroxysm (at least so far) as Super Tuesday results started pouring in. Georgia, which Obama won by 36%, was irrelevant, the Clinton operation told us, because she hadn't campaigned there and Obama had a "consistently [...] wide poll lead" in the state. Left unsaid was the fact that both Clintons were in Georgia days before the primary and that Clinton was well ahead in the state just weeks before the February 5 contest.

It seemed like it couldn't get any worse, but then her campaign claimed that Clinton's Oklahoma win (the first of the evening for her) was important because it was the only state so far where both candidates had "competed fiercely." Oklahoma, as it happened, was the one state in which Obama had not campaigned (he was last there in March 2007, it seems), and one in which polling had showed he was consistently behind by 20 or 30%. The breathtaking inanity of the statement undermined anything else Clinton achieved that night, starting with her strong wins in Massachusetts and California (and no, Obama wasn't expected to win those, but he was expected to do better than lose by double digits).

The Clinton spin finally spiralled out of control that night when her campaign claimed Missouri, an "important swing state," presumably demonstrating her ability to carry such states. Sadly for her, it turned out to be a loss, presumably demonstrating that Obama can carry, well, "important swing states."

There is a stark contrast between the two campaigns in setting expectations and spinning results. The Obama crew, buoyed by huge crowds and infectious enthusiasm, is not good at dampening excited anticipation, but it also doesn't patronize us after the fact. Conversely, the Clinton campaign and its supporters have been much better at managing prospects, albeit with some misfires. One foolish Clinton blogger thought he'd set the bar really high on February 9 by publishing outlandish predictions for an Obama win, until the predictions were exceeded in every single one of the states. And who can forget Clinton campaign manager Terry McAuliffe's post-Iowa statement that "this thing will be over by February 5?" Perhaps he was implying that it would be over in favor of Obama, a case of really lowering expectations for his candidate? In which case, that must mean the momentum is with Hillary, as she has now managed to pull even with Obama-The-Frontrunner!

It is in defeat that the Clinton PR fails, sounding awkwardly bitter and blaming everything from the caucus system to sexism, to open primaries, to independents, to black women, to white men, to red states, to young people, to educated people, to rich people for their loss. This was silly after Iowa, and is plainly ridiculous now: at one point or another in his 19-state winning romp, Obama has prevailed in primaries and caucuses; among white men and white women; states in the South, Northeast, Midwest and West; rural states, urban states and suburbs; college kids and working class retirees. It has been a remarkably encompassing and national success so far for Obama, the Clintons' race-baiting jabs notwithstanding (Jesse Jackson won in South Carolina too, Bill helpfully emphasized).

The Clinton operation's dismissive attitude towards the states that she loses ("didn't campaign there," "caucus!") feels uncomfortably like a post-facto snub by the aggrieved party in a break up ("she's not really my type anyway;" "he snores SO loudly;" "did I tell you I cheated on him once?").

Even the campaign finance rules, under attack by Bill just a few weeks ago, are now the Clinton campaign's new best friend, as the couple are suddenly grateful to be able to pump (ie, loan) millions of their, ahem, hard-earned post-presidency cash into a suddenly impoverished enterprise. We may not need their unreleased tax statements after all: it should be clear soon enough exactly how much money they have made in the past eight years when they spend it on advertising in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania.

It's a great idea to challenge the primary and general election systems, which are dreadfully undemocratic. But why now? Hillary and Bill Clinton have been running for the presidency for nearly 20 years, and are aware of the rules, have agreed to them, fully endorsed them, were instrumental in creating them, and thrived on them until last month. That they want to upend the process this very minute is a powerful statement about their lack of faith in her ability to win.