Saturday, January 5, 2008
Why Hillary Should Really Hart Obama
Well, it looks like the bandwagon is taking off without me. The polls coming out of New Hampshire show a strong bump for Obama coming out of Iowa, and by all accounts the Clinton campaign is in panic mode. Part of this has to do with the fact that only five days separate the two primaries, so there's little time to let the afterglow of Iowa wear off and re-calibrate the tone and message. But it could very well be that without the sheen of inevitability, Hillary Clinton just doesn't make that attractive a candidate.
Still, thinking it over, my reference to Walter Mondale in 1984 was more prescient than I'd at first realized. This seems like a scenario that Hillary Clinton would do well to consider before engaging in any desperation attacks that will probably incur longterm costs well beyond any dubious shorterm gains:
Colorado Senator Gary Hart was a more serious threat to Mondale, and after winning several early primaries it looked as if he might take the nomination away from Mondale. Hart criticized Mondale as an "old-fashioned" New Deal Democrat who symbolized "failed policies" of the past. Hart positioned himself as a younger, fresher, and more moderate Democrat who could appeal to younger voters. He emerged as a formidable candidate, winning the key New Hampshire, Ohio, and California primaries as well as several others, especially in the West. However, Hart couldn't overcome Mondale's financial and organizational advantages, especially among labor union leaders in the Midwest and industrial Northeast. Hart was also badly hurt when Mondale, in a televised debate with Hart during the primaries, used a popular television commercial slogan to ridicule Hart's vague "New Ideas" platform. Turning to Hart on camera, Mondale told Hart that whenever he heard Hart talk about his "New Ideas", he was reminded of the Wendy's fast-food slogan "Where's the beef?".
This was the same campaign where Jesse Jackson won several primaries as well, meaning that it resembles the triangular dynamic of this year's contest, with the irony, of course, being that Edwards is reprising Jackson's populist role in this year's remake.
To move from the realm of analysis and prediction to that of political consulting, it seems to me that Hillary's best move here is to do what seems to come least naturally to her, but which always seems to play well for her among voters. Namely, to let her defenses down. There's something disarming about her when she shows up without the armor, and she could really turn the loss of inevitability to her advantage if she embraced it as a chance to earn the nomination on the merits, and to make her case, simply and directly, of why she thinks she deserves it. That plus the institutional support she still has could go a long way towards fighting back the momentum Obama will generate coming out of the early primaries.
Most importantly, she should stay away from attacks, because it's only a matter of time before Edwards is going to get desperate and do the dirty work for her. I'd go so far as to say that she should come straight out and acknowledge what Obama has accomplished, both for his own campaign but also for the Party in general. Something along the lines of, Thanks for bringing them all to the dance, Barack, but this is why I'm more qualified to take it from here.
Unfortunately I won't be able to see the debates from over here, as I'm sure they'll be determinant for the polls leading into Tuesday's voting. But from the distant and dispassionate reaches of Paris, this still seems like it's a long way from over.