A fly on the wall isn’t necessary to know that these are very dicey times inside the Clinton ’08 War Room. As the fulcrum has turned in the last few weeks and Barack Obama has taken the lead in states won, popular vote, and pledged delegates, the once indomitable Hillary Machine is in internecine strategical fisticuffs over what to do with this man who should be having sullen shirtless photo ops on the beach in Hawaii right now as the press speculates on his chances to be Hillary’s running mate this fall, and dissecting his campaign and how it has prepared him for another run in 2016.
It’s no surprise that Hillary had to loan her campaign money after Super Tuesday. Every element of their war gaming had this race over by February 6. Many pundits have spoken over the last few weeks over having to cancel months-planned February vacations, and Tim Russert today rolled out a December 30 quote from Hillary where she is on record as saying her anointment would be complete by the stroke of midnight on February 6.
This is why you always have a Plan B. If Team Clinton did have one, it didn’t stand for “Barack”.
One can only imagine the effort being split up between campaign opposition research turning up every rock Obama has ever tread near looking for that elusive chunk of kryptonite that will vanquish this unexpected überman, and votive candles and 24-hour prayer vigils at campaign HQ pleading for divine intervention in the form of a prostitute who says Barack snorted cocaine off her bare breasts in a Richmond Comfort Inn after last year’s Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner.
One panelist on this week’s “McLaughlin Group” (I can never tell who says what on that show; it’s like watching an English football riot) suggested the only chance Hillary’s nomination had was a Paul Wellstone-like aviation disaster. It was awkward and just a bit inappropriate, but don’t imagine for a moment that wish hasn’t crossed more than a few minds among Clinton’s brain trust.
Left with little else, Hillary attacked Obama’s audacity of hope Friday. She assailed his stirring oration and relentless entreaties to hope and change with a dismissive, “Some people may think that words are change. You and I both know–words are cheap.” Words may be cheap, but to the hundreds of thousands of people showing up at Obama rallies across the country, after years of being served the oratorical equivalent of prison food from a President who can’t even pronounce the names of the enemies we’re fighting and on a near-daily basis drops mangled, indignant proclamations that evoke such images as gynecologists mounting their patients on the exam table*, it’s worth a million in prizes.
This is exactly the wrong strategy to take, but she’s throwing everything within her reach at him, much like she did at Bill in the kitchen at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion during their storied donnybrooks in the late 1980s. She’s likely right now feeling as desperate and helpless as she did when she found another Frederick’s of Hollywood mail order charge on Bill’s AmEx card, but she casts a far less sympathetic shadow in her current predicament.
People want to hear Obama’s words, and no one cares if it’s cheap or not. Bill Clinton made a similar misstep when he gave a back-handed slap to Barack’s caucus supporters as well-heeled, highly-educated “people who don’t need a President but feel like they want change.” The Clintons’ collective memory is either short or selective. Obama is running the same campaign they ran against George H.W. Bush in 1992–remember “a place called Hope”?–only this time they’re the wealthy establishment.
Bill’s curious defense of his wife after Iowa was that “I can’t make her younger, taller, male, there’s a lot I can’t do.” And you can’t make her passionate or inspiring either. Hillary is neither Bill nor Barack. You certainly can’t blame her for that. Few and far between are the politicians who make you want to listen; even fewer and further between are Presidential candidates who provoke more than a yawn and a quick flip of channel in all but the wonkiest and most personality-bereft political observers. Hillary’s misfortune is that she’s whip-smart, savvy, has always done her homework and then some–and is rubber chicken circuit boring.
The only reason Hillary got to live in the White House for eight years is because her husband used all those cheap words to his advantage–to inspire and engage and connect in a way that the untelegenic, awkward, and seemingly-disinterested Bush, Senior (remember the glance at his wristwatch during the October 1992 town hall debate) couldn’t.
And if she’s stealing a page from the Karl Rove/Roger Ailes playbook and attempting to attack his greatest strength, then she’s just adding bleach and ammonia together and someone should call the paramedics for her campaign right now.
They’re not done pulling arrows out of the quiver, though. Far from it. They’re also playing the underdog card with Obama’s nascent frontrunner status. Again, Bill (who’s starting to play the same designated embarrassment role in Hillary’s campaign that the inebriated and oft-arrested Roger Clinton played in Bill’s): “Hillary has been the underdog since Iowa…(but) we’ve gotten plenty of delegates on a shoestring.” Hillary’s $5 million dollar loan to the campaign came after they exhausted her $140 million war chest. As Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune notes, “That’s a lot of shoestring, even for Washington.”
The question moving forward is how badly the Clintons want to win and how desperate their strategy will become. Impetuous and temperamental as they might often be, they’re still seasoned political veterans and one would think they’ll pick carefully the grenades they choose to lob at Obama. The nomination is useless to her without his voters, and if their scorched-earth policy hands the election to John McCain, their lives in American politics are essentially over and you’ll see them spending their retirement somewhere far away where words might also be cheap, but you pay for them with Euros or Swiss francs.
*“Too many OB-GYNs aren’t able to practice their love with women all across this country.” – George Bush in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, on September 6, 2004, calling for medical liability reform.