Wednesday, January 9, 2008
I was undecided as I woke up this morning whether the title of this post would be 'Whoa-bama' or 'Mo-bama'. Then it occurred to me to go with a Truman/Dewey-inspired 'Clinton Wins! (Just Kidding)'. Just kidding, indeed. That makes twice in a week that this campaign has given us a major surprise. In an age of voter cynicism, blanket media coverage, and scientific polling, that already strikes me as a very good thing.
I agree also with Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan that ultimately this is good for the process, good for the party and good for the candidates. I'm tempted to say especially for Obama, who will now get a chance to respond to a reversal of fortune. I think he also benefits from not winning the nomination based on a momentary wave of euphoria. After all, as a friend reminded me last night, there was a brief moment four years ago when John Kerry seemed like a sure thing, and while I think Obama is a much better candidate than Kerry was, the test of a true campaign can only put to rest questions about his toughness, while also providing him with invaluable experience.
But for more obvious reasons this is really a dramatic boost for Clinton. The shock of Iowa brought out the worst aspects of the Clinton machine, which in turn brought out the worst in the press. But the panic and desperation also seemed to bring out the best in Clinton herself. Hopefully the lesson won't be lost on her. The victory should also put to rest the rumors of a Swiftboat campaign against Obama, which any way you look at it would have been disastrous both for Clinton and the Party.
On the other hand, if there's a potential downside for Hillary, it's if she draws the wrong conclusions about just why she managed to eke out the victory (which is admittedly not very clear). If she decides that it was due to the stream of baseless attacks on Obama's record and Bill Clinton's bareknuckled campaigning, she's headed for trouble, because those tactics play directly into the fears and expectations of the haters.
Now admittedly there are some Clinton haters that she'll never convince. But I'm not so sure they're as unreachable a crowd as the media makes them out to be. If the campaign were a super-hero movie and Clinton were the super-villain, she wouldn't be the one who's so evil through and through that the audience never sympathizes with. She'd be the super-villain who has a brief moral dilemma, just at the end of act two, a moment of emotional candor that gives the audience a reason to root for her. Or more accurately, to root for the good that's in her to win out over her evil instincts. Sound familiar?
Of course, in the movie, the super-villain quickly shakes off the moment of weakness, tosses off a memorable one-liner and lets rip with the hurting. To win the nomination, Clinton needs to show us what act three looks like if, just once, the good wins out.
A reliable indication of whether that happens is if she goes ahead with the rumored post-NH campaign shakeup. The move would have amounted to hitting the panic button in the event of a loss. Coming out with the victory as she did, she could frame it as a change in tone in the context of having heard the voters. If she does that, I think she's got a good chance of locking up the nomination. If she goes ahead with business as usual, all bets are off.