"Being here this morning is a gift," Hillary Clinton says to the small band of supporters, several hundred strong, gathered under the Saturday morning sun at Good Will Fire Company No. 2, Station 52 in West Chester, Pennsylvania. The Senator is late for her first event of the day; her voice is hoarse. But like the day she is bright and calm. Gone are the faux smiles and waves, the slight brittleness, that have been part of her stage entrance so many times on the campaign trail. But it's too late.
Being here this morning is a gift are the first words out of her mouth. It's clear she means it. This is the perception of an older woman, one who has watched friends and family pass on, who has wondered why they and not she, who has had to settle for answers not on the great philosophies but on the simple things. A new morning as gift--there isn't a wise woman in the world who doesn't share Hillary Clinton's feeling. But that a presidential candidate would choose such an opening remark four days out from a primary that looks to be "the one" is extraordinary. For the remark and its tenor show that Hillary Clinton has been digging deep within herself, asking herself some hard questions. But it's too late.
Here is a woman trapped in a bad narrative, partly of her own making, partly not. Perhaps she's been searching for clarity. Perhaps she's been asking herself, "What am I doing here? How did I get to this place? How do I find my way forward?" But it's too late.
The Pennsylvania primary, starting slow, has ended like a demolition derby. Gaffes. Mistakes. Misjudgments. Name-calling. Mud-slinging. Mud-wrestling. Writing some of Hillary Clinton's bad narrative was her decision initially to attack Senator Obama for his "bitter" remarks. She should've kept mum, as she discovered herself in Pittsburgh last Thursday when she was booed for broaching the subject. Afterwards, from Thursday afternoon until Sunday, she hardly referred to her opponent. On Sunday, however, after Senator Obama had spent much of Saturday attacking her, Senator Clinton returned to the offensive. In doing so, she lost the clarity of the previous few days that helped her to do well what she does best: present large policy in small ways that people can easily grasp and understand. But even if she had maintained that equilibrium, holding onto that clarity through primary day, it's too late.
Who are the people listening to Hillary Clinton now in Pennsylvania? For the most part, they are indeed working class and middle class folk who live worlds apart from the wealthy Californians and New Yorkers trying to figure out how to package money to keep Hillary Clinton's campaign afloat. Many places Hillary Clinton has been in Pennsylvania, she's chosen the meaner streets, the humbler, poorer parts of town. She has a long history with some of these neighborhoods. Women in Scranton talk about her returning to a family christening just last spring. Mayfair, a close-knit northeast Philly neighborhood, where families have lived on the same block for three generations, remembers Bill Clinton campaigning in the rain in '92 outside the Mayfair Diner. Friday night, when Hillary Clinton returned to the Mayfair Diner for a block party, at least half the crowd, the largest ever at a political rally in northeast Philly, remembered that rainy night sixteen years before. Clintonism is part of neighborhood identity in many Pennsylvania towns and cities. This is why Hillary Clinton will win Pennsylvania. But winning here--it's too late.
A surprising aspect of the Pennsylvania race has been the obliviousness of many of Hillary Clinton's supporters to the media. These supporters have not heard the pronouncement that the race is all but over. Every Hillary event has had its share of Republicans (Obama is not the only candidate with "kins") who have come out to hear her, the better to decide whether or not to vote for her in November. But most of the people who stand in line for several hours to get into a Hillary event are loyalists. Indeed the tenor of a Clinton rally, from Bristol to Bethlehem, is fierce loyalty. On some level, these believers must know that they are backing the losing candidate; that they will not be returning for her in November. But by and large these are people who are accustomed to losing--it's something they deeply understand because it's been their own experience--and that recognition makes their support stronger. In a powerful way, Hillary Clinton's losing validates her working class supporters' lives. This is the kind of bond that can forge a candidacy. But for Hillary Clinton it's too late.
"The internal combustion engine is the same as it was when it was invented well over a hundred years ago," Hillary Clinton observed to her supporters at the West Chester fire station. Then she challenged those supporters to invent something new. In two sentences, she cut through the welter of policy prescriptions on oil & energy with a concrete image that all Americans, many bewildered by talk of sodded houses and wind turbines, can understand. This clarity, this easy familiarity with difficult issues, would have helped Hillary Clinton with health care in the 1990s. This ability to get straight to the point has been hard-earned. But it's too late.
Even when Hillary Clinton was the inevitable winner, swathed in a cloak of invincibility, it was too late. For her race for the White House has always been circumscribed by the political fortunes of two men: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
The Clinton family has given it everything in Pennsylvania--this all-out effort says as much as anything that here is Hillary Clinton's last stand. Bill Clinton, as usual largely ignored by the national press, has been speechifying for his wife back and forth across the state in five to seven campaign events a day. This is an almost unbelievably brutal schedule, the equivalent of a forced march. By the time he reached Puerto Rican Philadelphia near midnight Saturday, his eighth event of the day, Bill Clinton was barely coherent. His opening remark was so garbled--"America is not worthy of its potential"--that it's impossible to discern what he meant to say. The tiny group who held out until 11:30 PM to hear him were a rag-tag bunch of artists, bohemians, lovers and neighborhood Puerto Rican supporters. The Clinton event, in a local artists' co-op, was just a sideshow to the evening. In the larger area of the gallery, a Latin Jazz ensemble was just tuning up. It was date night for a lot of these folks, who were much more interested in canoodling and kissing than listening to an ex-President. The atmosphere was barely respectful; at several points the group responded to Clinton with boos and catcalls when he refused to take a question about the neighborhood's problem with a casino wanting to locate there. It was hard to see how this sad event garnered Mrs. Clinton even one additional Puerto Rican vote in Philadelphia--and even if she had every Puerto Rican vote, it's too late.
Saturday night Bill Clinton said that if Philly Puerto Ricans would vote for Hillary "it will be like the wind at her back blowing her forward." This remark was part of a larger observation: "If she goes on to win this nomination and the presidency, it will be because in no small measure of the belief and faith and trust and the loyalty of Hispanic Americans." And, of course, Bill Clinton is right. The Hispanic vote gave Hillary Clinton Nevada, California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. But it's still too late.
Leaving the massive Obama rally in Philadelphia's Independence Square early in order to catch Bill Clinton, I was thinking in the same terms Clinton himself would use only hours later. Obama has caught the following wind. Circling Independence Square as my GPS intoned "Please Proceed to the Highlighted Route," I continued to hear Obama, for he had been miked to reach the farther crowds across the square. In the unusually warm evening air, his voice was carrying two and three blocks beyond, where people, some of them undoubtedly caught unawares, slowed, listening, standing on corners, ambling, lowering conversation at outdoor cafes. Adding these listeners to the crowd in Independence Square, easily 50,000 people heard Barack Obama in Philadelphia Friday night. The historic moment and its following wind has ever been Obama's, and nothing Hillary Clinton has done or could have done would ever have changed that. It has always been too late.