Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Clinton's Problems: Do They Reflect Her Leadership?

I've been waiting until the Virginia race was called to write this. Virginia was the only one of the three states voting today in which Hillary Clinton was expected to have any chance of doing well. Since the state has been called for Obama from the very minute the polls closed- surprising nobody- I'm going ahead on a point that quite a few people have brought up of late: if this is an example of how Hillary Clinton campaigns, what does that say about her leadership skills if she becomes President?

Back in the aftermath of Tsunami Tuesday Politico.com pointed out five reasons why the Clinton camp should be really concerned about their performance, despite avoiding the threatened Obama tidal wave. Those reasons:

  1. She lost the delegate derby. (That is, Obama got more actual delegates on February 5 than Clinton.)
  2. She essentially tied Obama in the popular vote. (She got 50,000 more votes than Obama on Feb. 5... out of nearly fifteen million cast.)
  3. She lost more states. (Thirteen to eight, with New Mexico still, a week later, in limbo.)
  4. She lost the January cash war. (By nearly three to one. It was so bad that just before February 5th the campaign was virtually insolvent. Since then emergency calls for money have shored up Clinton finances... for now.)
  5. The calendar is her enemy. (Virtually all of the remaining February contests favored Obama, as has been demonstrated so far.)

Since then these points have become worse. Despite official Clinton claims that her campaign has raised over $10 million in February, insider rumor has it that the campaign is only actualizing about half a million per day- that would be $6 million to date. Obama's campaign is pulling in twice that (including my trifling donations, which to date total $30.01). She's lost every state since Super Tuesday- in fact, estimates from ObamaIsWinning.com shows that Obama currently leads both the pledged delegate race and the actual popular vote by substantial margins.

Has the Clinton campaign learned anything from this? Not so you'd notice. Bill Clinton continues to belittle Barack Obama- the strategy that gave Obama his landslide win in South Carolina and his chance to match Clinton vote for vote on Tsunami Tuesday. Hillary Clinton continues to campaign on the premise that she is the best prepared candidate- a theme that has failed her outside the strongest Democratic machine states. Finally, the anticipated "campaign shakeup" postponed after the New Hampshire primary consisted of one person- campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle- not being fired so much as "kicked upstairs" into a senior advisory position. The replacement? Another senior Clinton adviser, Maggie Williams. Campaign strategist Mark Penn retains his position.

In other words, the change is just enough to show weakness and division within the Hillary Clinton campaign... but not nearly enough to actually change the trend.

The Clinton campaign is now betting everything on strong victories in the remaining three states out of the ten largest. Current polls in all three states- Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania- show Clinton ahead by double-digit margins. In one case, though, these numbers may be misleading: the Obama camp in Texas has done some number-crunching that shows that, thanks to lopsided assignment of delegates and a parallel primary-caucus system, that if Clinton gets less than a ten point win the actual delegates split almost evenly.

Regardless of this, there's a more pressing reason for the Clintons to bet it all on those three big states: they're losing virtually everywhere else. In just four days polls in Wisconsin turned from a nine point Clinton lead to an eleven point Obama lead. New polls in North Carolina- a state similar in many ways to Tennessee, where Clinton won- show Obama leading there by ten points.

According to the New York Times article I quoted last night, “She has to win both Ohio and Texas comfortably, or she’s out.” The three states mentioned- again, Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania- make up nearly half of the 1,079 pledged delegates left after tonight. (I left Puerto Rico out of my list yesterday.) Considering that Obama will win the vast majority, if not all, of the other states by substantial majorities, Clinton cannot afford even an even split: she must win decisively in all three states merely to hold even in the final delegate count.

How did Hillary Clinton, the presumed unstoppable nominee in 2007, fall so far as to place an all-or-nothing bet on the same big-state strategy that failed Rudy Giuliani? And why, considering how bad things are for her now, why isn't she doing more to change course?

Here are the reasons, in my opinion:

(1) Hillary Clinton prefers personal loyalty over competence. According to Joshua Green at the Atlantic, Patti Solis Doyle and her successor were both chosen mainly for their loyalty to Hillary... despite ample evidence of Doyle's incomptence.

It’s important to emphasize that Solis Doyle was not the architect of the Clinton strategy. It was devised and agreed to by many of the campaign’s top staffers, and the candidate herself signed off on it. But in all my reporting and personal experience with the campaign, Solis Doyle probably embodied it more than anyone else. It’s not unfair that she lost her job; but it is unfair that no other senior staffers appear to be in danger of losing theirs.

No one could have predicted Barack Obama’s sudden rise, though the Clinton campaign was slower to recognize it than most. Solis Doyle’s failure is another matter. As much as Clinton touts her own “executive experience” and judgment, she made Solis Doyle her campaign manager because of Solis Doyle’s loyalty, rather than her skill, despite a trail of available evidence suggesting she was unsuited for the role.

. . .

The first public sign of this came just after Clinton’s reelection to the Senate. Even though Clinton had faced no serious opponent, it turned out that Solis Doyle, as campaign manager, had burned through more than $30 million. As this New York Times story makes clear, the donor base was incensed. Toward the end of the Senate campaign, Solis Doyle did her best to bolster the impression of the inevitability of Hillary’s nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate, spreading word that Clinton’s Senate reelection fund-raising had gone so exceptionally well that $40 million to $50 million would be left after Election Day to transfer to the incipient presidential campaign. But this turned out to be a wild exaggeration—and Solis Doyle must have known it was. Disclosure filings revealed a paltry $10 million in cash on hand; far from conveying Hillary’s inevitability, this had precisely the opposite effect, encouraging, rather than frightening off, potential challengers.

Rather than punish Solis Doyle or raise questions about her fitness to lead, Clinton chose her to manage the presidential campaign for reasons that should now be obvious: above all, Clinton prizes loyalty and discipline, and Solis Doyle demonstrated both traits, if little else. This suggests to me that for all the emphasis Clinton has placed on executive leadership in this campaign, her own approach is a lot closer to the current president’s than her supporters might like to admit.

(2) Hillary was overconfident to the point of arrogance. Again from Green's article:

Rather, Solis Doyle, who began as Clinton’s personal scheduler in 1991 (and who, as it happens, coined the term “Hillaryland”) was Clinton’s alter ego and was installed in the job specifically for that reason. Her performance in Clinton’s past races and especially in this one reflects all the good and the bad that the alter-ego designation carries. I’ve always felt that the most revealing thing about Solis Doyle is her oft-repeated line: “When I’m speaking, Hillary is speaking.” It is revealing both because it is true and because it conveys—and even flaunts—an arrogance that I think is the key to understanding all that has gone wrong for the Clinton campaign.

Such arrogance led directly to the idea that Clinton could simply project an air of inevitability and be assured her party’s nomination. If she wins—as she very well might—it will be in spite of her original approach. As one former Clinton staffer put it to me last spring: “There was an assumption that if you were a major donor and wanted to be an ambassador, go to state dinners with the queen—unless you were an outright fool, you were going to go with Hillary, whether you liked her or not. The attitude was ‘Where else are they going to go?’”

Marc Ambinder adds:

Since Iowa, parts of Hillary Clinton's campaign leadership have been in a state of suspended animation. One by one, the benchmarks the campaign has set for itself -- money, a Feb. 5 knock out, a lead in the popular vote, a superdelegate advantage -- have fallen to a superior effort by Barack Obama's campaign. Clinton aides, junior level to senior level, are exhausted.

Strategically, it is clear that Clinton campaign did not envision an elongated contest until fairly recently, even though senior adviser Harold Ickes had set out a memo laying out various delegate scenarios in December. Obama's campaign, by contrast, had for months projected a fight for delegates.

3. Hillary wants centralized control of her whole campaign. At campaign events, Clinton supporters are herded into place, told what to say and when to cheer. Grassroots spontaneous organization is not encouraged. On the other hand, Obama's campaign lives or dies on grassroots organization, on enthusiastic people doing what they want to do with or without guidance or control from above. Result: Clinton does very, very poorly in caucuses, which are dependent on grassroots organization and enthusiastic people.

Furthermore, Clinton's desire for control has expressed itself through the party machinery in a desire to enforce a loyalty vote. As Dennis Kucinich found out, she was successful in getting the Texas Democratic Party to require an oath to support the eventual candidate, no matter who, in November. Similar attempts elsewhere have failed, as a Maine reader of Andrew Sullivan's blog reports:

The most heated moment came late in the process, when an elderly gentleman for Hillary said, "I want everyone here to make a pledge, and I'm talking to all you Obama supporters. I want you to pledge that you will be loyal Democrats, and vote for Hillary if she gets the nomination." The 4 (former) independents all said flat-out if it was Clinton vs. McCain, they would be voting for McCain. One Obama supporter said, "I'm an American first, not a Democrat, and I will make no such pledge."

Also, Hillary's desire for control is visible even in her basic campaign message. It bears repeating: where Obama's rhetoric repeats, "Yes, We Can," and, "We are ready for change," Clinton's response is, "I can do it," and, "I am ready from day one." Where Obama's positions allow the individual to make his or her own decisions, Clinton desires control from above. For Hillary Clinton nobody really exists as a person, as an equal, except possibly for her husband. She is a superior being, and thus she should- and must- control everyone else.

This combination of factors- preference to personal loyalty over competence, personal arrogance, and the desire to control all in view- does not remind me of past Democratic presidents. It doesn't even remind me all that much of her husband, former president Bill Clinton.

It reminds me of the current occupant of the White House, a man who has never admitted an error, a man who picks cronies for high office despite manifest incompetence, a man who has tried to turn the Presidency into absolute monarchy.

More and more voters are sensing this. They see Hillary not as a change from Bush, but Bush in a pantsuit- an insincere, ruthless, power-hungry politician whose word cannot be trusted and whose resume is grossly padded.

As I write this Patti Solis Doyle's chief assistant has resigned from the Clinton campaign. This doesn't change much: Maggie Williams would bring in a new personal staff anyway. The mistakes that have dogged the Clinton campaign- that may have doomed it- came from higher up...

... most likely from the very top.

(P. S. Before I post this, Clinton is talking now. She's promising a minimum wage hike by another two dollars... and proclaiming that an eternally rising wage is a human right. Where, pray tell, is the money to come from for this? Who is going to buy the goods and services that keep getting more and more expensive? She's gone straight to demagogue mode- promise anything, no matter how impossible, that sounds good. Feh.)

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