Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hillary’s cog-diss problem

Where have you heard this before?:

“We arrested our opponent’s momentum.”

“We held our ground in this key battleground state.”

“Our opponent’s margin of victory was smaller than expected.”

“We’re keeping our powder dry for the big battle to come in [put state name here]"

No, these aren’t bullet-point outtakes from the non-campaign campaign of Rudy Giuliani; they are, or have been the operational boilerplate of the Hillary Clinton campaign for the last two weeks.

Therein lies the problem for a bid for the presidency the Associated Press dared to call “fading,” an effort that even her most ardent supporters may be hard-pressed to call anything else.

With Tuesday’s double-digit victories in the Hawaii caucuses and the Wisconsin primary, Barack Obama has amassed 10 consecutive election wins in a row. His insurgent challenge is succeeding wildly against the veteran politician thought of as the presumptive nominee since, uh, day one of this presidential campaign.

And in Texas, one of the remaining big-delegate states up for grabs in the primary on March 4th, patterns of early voting (allowed in the state) indicate probable support for Obama. Think of it: Obama’s already got votes locked up in a state where the primary is still two weeks away. It’s the election-year equivalent of money in the bank (and the Obama campaign has plenty of the real thing too).

As We Speak, the Clinton brain trust is hunkering down with many pots of strong coffee (using Maalox for creamer) in a hotel suite crowded with whiteboards, trying to figure how to cut into the Obama momentum. It will be a merciless job: Clinton lost in Wisconsin by 17 percentage points, in Hawaii by more than 50. By NBC News’ estimation, Clinton must win 65 percent of the delegates in the remaining primary and caucus contests to pull ahead of where Obama is now. The AP reported that Clinton must win 57 percent of the remaining delegates in 14 states and two territories to take the lead. Who's right? Not much difference either way. An uphill battle is an uphill battle.

The situation is such that Newsday went so far as to caption its Wednesday front page with “Fall Preview? Obama vs. McCain” — effectively kicking the Clinton campaign to the curb before the primaries are even done.

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The problems for the Clinton crew are formidable. Some in the campaign, such as longtime Democratic Goodwrench Mandy Grunwald, are calling for an emo charm offensive — an attempt to rebrand Clinton as a compassionate candidate, the better to reinforce her human side. Others, including the candidate herself, seem to be intent on maintaining an attack strategy: focusing on the Deval Patrick speech that Obama borrowed liberally from recently [see “Unjust words”] and trying to reframe the Obama mystique as a cult (requiring Clinton as a deprogrammer).

But in all of it, there’s more than a whiff of desperation. The Clinton campaign’s furious efforts at reframing the debate, dismantling the public perception of Obama and rebranding the public idea of Clinton herself is something like trying to build an aircraft and fly it at the same time.

There’s a degree of failure baked into their efforts:

There’s a basic problem with “holding your ground.” That is fundamentally a strategy of attrition. If you are holding your ground, you’re not gaining ground, you’re struggling to maintain the advantage you already have. In this scenario, advancing is basically not an option. That's a problem for a military campaign, and a political one.

When the only upside you can point to is losing by 10 or 12 percentage points instead of 15, you’re in trouble. You’re running on cognitive dissonance, an old psychological theory that, roughly defined, means putting the best possible spin on the worst possible situation.

Basically, Hillary’s cogs got dissed on Tuesday night. Her ground game in Wisconsin was thought to be unstoppable; so, too, it was assumed that a lot of people in Wisconsin were like Hillary herself: a mother with blue-collar affinities (if not income). Wrong. Double-digit wrong. Now it’s on Texas, where Obama has already started the process of galvanizing supporters, who have responded with heavy voting in traditionally-Republican strongholds, and pre-emptive protests against voter disenfranchisement.

Back on her home turf in New York today, speaking at Hunter College, Clinton called for a reality check. “Let’s get real,” she said in an auditorium the New York Observer noted was “packed mostly with the middle-aged women who make up her base.” “Let’s get real about this election. Let’s get real about our future.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, Clinton supporter and Democratic Party leader, spoke on her behalf, emphasizing her stature as someone who’s already taken the worst mud the Republicans can throw. “When they take out their 2 by 4,” he said, assuming a batter’s position, “she’ll be ready with her 4 by 8 to hit them back.”

The baseball analogy is clever enough, and topical enough given Clinton’s current troubles: She’s still swinging for the fences, but it may be time for the $100-million plus Clinton campaign to consider using some performance-enhancing substances of its own.

1 comment:

  1. “When they take out their 2 by 4,” he said, assuming a batter’s position, “she’ll be ready with her 4 by 8 to hit them back.”

    She's doing such a poor job against Sen. Obama, it makes me wonder where the logic is in this statement.


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