Thursday, May 8, 2008

The burn rate in three parts

With the Democratic nomination for president all but a lock for Sen. Barack Obama, the obligatory early postmortems have started on what happened to the once-invincible campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton.

It’s a given that Clinton burned a lot of bridges to get here, “here” being either on the verge of the next phase in an increasingly quixotic pursuit of the Democratic nomination, or on the verge of ending that campaign altogether. She’s been proving more recently that she’s pretty good at spending money — the metric for the classic “burn rate” of the Internet economy.

But regardless of whatever salvation scenarios Team Clinton gins up between now and month’s end, Hillary Clinton is where she is now (dependent on others to make or break her success, largely helpless to her own fate) for another reason. She’s also proven to be adept at burning some of the very people she needed at more critical junctures of her failing campaign.

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Look at the bridges she’s torched: Her recent adoptions of Republican rhetoric about the war and dealing with Iran, and her acceptance of the endorsement of conservative publisher Richard Mellon Scaife showed her taking her talent for triangulation to a new height. Clinton crossed into Republican territory with such ease and comfort that it's prompted several in the blogosphere to call for Hillary to own up to being a Republican, to make her conversion to the GOP official. (She did, after all, start her political life as a Goldwater Girl.)

This expedient abandonment of Democratic party principles and strategies reflected her desire to use a scorched-earth approach to campaigning, victory the ends achieved by any means necessary — even at the expense of the policy and practices native to the party she hoped to lead in the fall. Clinton is discovering the blowback of scorched-earth politics; now, with party diehards rallying around Obama, the only earth left to scorch is the earth beneath her feet.

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The burn rate of campaign money — already a problem for a campaign that relied on top-of-the-pyramid, big-money donors in a national economy teetering on recession, a campaign that came late to aggressive use of the Internet as a platform for community and fundraising — only got worse in recent months. Clinton lent her campaign $5 million of her own money in March; it was revealed Wednesday that the candidate lent her presidential bid another $6.42 million for expenses in April and May.

Setting aside the obligatory press-release defense — such loans Only Underscore the Dedication of This Candidate to the Campaign — the Clinton hand-to-mouth ATM approach points to a failure of the basic strategy of counting on large donors to form the basis for a national coalition branded as a bottom-up effort.

Obama got this right away. Establishing a grassroots approach to fundraising, Obama tapped into a wider base of donors, everyday people who could kick in $25 here and $50 there, the “twos and fews” that’s led to a highly liquid, easily replenished source of campaign funds.

Clinton’s donors — faced with the impact of the same sputtering economy as everyone else — pulled back on big donations over time, forcing Clinton to tap her own kitty more than once.

McClatchy Newspapers asked the question in a headline: “If Clinton can’t run a campaign, can she run the White House?”

Besides giving the country a relatively poor showing of her abilities as a financial manager, Clinton’s problems reflected positively on how Obama would manage the national economy. His campaign balance sheet — flush with cash and small-money donors who’ve made regular donations a part of their monthly budgets — is a stark comparison and contrast with her own.

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But these issues might have been safely navigated if Clinton hadn’t committed the big one, the bonfire of the verities, the cardinal sin of American politics: She didn’t dance with the ones who brung her to the party.

In October 2007, a CNN poll found that Clinton had a 57 percent to 33 percent lead over Obama among black registered Democrats overall — no doubt a base of support she largely inherited from her hubby, former president Bill Clinton, whose backing by African Americans continued to soar in the years after he left office. That poll result was up from 53 percent for Clinton and 36 percent for Obama in a poll carried out in April of that year.

"The 'sistah' vote is paying off handsomely for Hillary Clinton," Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile told CNN. "It's not only getting her the women's vote. It's also getting her the black vote."

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What a difference seven months make. Either with statements she uttered herself or through innuendo she mutely accepted on her behalf, Hillary turned her back on any serious nurturing of the storied Clinton relationship with African American voters. The result was quite the contrary.

With Bill Clinton’s comments equating Obama’s probable primary victory in South Carolina with Jesse Jackson’s years before; with his derision of the Obama presidential bid as “a fairy tale”; with Hillary’s derision of Obama’s campaign (“let’s get real about our future”); with her use of a passive-aggressive ethnicity dogwhistle (Obama was not a Muslim, "as far as I know”); and with the campaign’s relentless pursuit of character assassinations borne of Obama’s historical relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, black support of the Clinton campaign went south week by week, month by month, primary by primary.

By Tuesday, the results in the North Carolina primary found black voters in the state going for Obama by more than 90 percent. Clinton garnered just 6 percent of the state’s black vote. Nationally, her core of black support isn’t much better.

“Clinton failed to stand for African-American Democrats when the chance presented itself late last fall and into early January, even if doing so meant firing key staffers or dressing down her own husband,” writes Thomas F. Schaller in Salon, in a piece published May 5 (before the Indiana/North Carolina votes).

“Doing that might have denied Barack Obama the near-universal claim to their support he now enjoys, and the black-white coalition he built from it. For Hillary Clinton, the price of that failure may turn out to be nothing less than the nomination itself.”

Hillary’s campaign is making history, all right: There hasn’t been a faster dissipation of constituent good will in the history of American politics.

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It goes beyond race. Clinton disaffected many other activist supporters, such as the 3.2 million people affiliated with the liberal advocacy organization

Clinton spoke at a donors’ fundraiser, which occurred sometime after Super Tuesday. On an audiotape from the event, excerpts of which were on The Huffington Post on April 18, Clinton blamed what she described as the “activist base” of the Democratic Party – with singled out for special attention — for many of her Super Tuesday losses, claiming that those activists “flooded” state caucuses and "intimidated" her supporters.

At the fundraiser, Clinton said: “ endorsed [Obama] — which is like a gusher of money that never seems to slow down. We have been less successful in caucuses because it brings out the activist base of the Democratic Party. MoveOn didn't even want us to go into Afghanistan. I mean, that's what we're dealing with. And you know they turn out in great numbers. And they are very driven by their view of our positions, and it's primarily national security and foreign policy that drives them. I don't agree with them. They know I don't agree with them. So they flood into these caucuses and dominate them and really intimidate people who actually show up to support me.”

Never mind that some parts of what she said weren’t true (Eli Pariser, MoveOn’s executive director, said the organization never opposed the war in Afghanistan). Clinton’s remarks followed comments she made in April 2007, at the closing remarks during Political Action's Virtual Town Hall meeting on Iraq, with highly favorable comments at odds with what she said after Super Tuesday.

This audiotape calls into question the fidelity Clinton has to the principles of the Democratic Party she wants to lead — and clearly indicates a willingness to diss the very people she needed to win.

Those two keystones of the 21st-century Democratic Party — a longstanding foundation of black voters and a still-solidifying base of young, educated, upwardly mobile activists — would have made the difference between winning and losing this primary season. As a bad Super Tuesday in February gave way to a stunningly bad first Tuesday in May, Clinton was hemorrhaging the support of the people she consistently needed in the primaries, and would have needed in the fall.

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In her bid for the presidency, Hillary Clinton has made fair use of a wide variety of political talents for the 2008 race. But besides the names of pollsters and analysts, advisers and specialists she’ll no doubt keep on file in her BlackBerry, she’d be well advised to add others to the payroll for her campaign in 2012:

A good firefighter or two would come in handy. Having burned her people, her principles and her pocketbook this time, she may need help putting out the fires next time.
Image credit: U.S. money: Public domain. Fire: Airman 1st Class Kathrine McDowell, USAF (public domain).
Vox update: It's 3 a.m. and Hillary Clinton is wide awake writing checks. The Associated Press reported yesterday that "Hillary Clinton, short on cash, long on debts, and facing a steep climb to the Democratic nomination, loaned herself another $6.4 million over the past month. That brings to $11.4 million the amount of personal funds Clinton has put toward her campaign to date, though aides said donors had subsequently chipped in to cover the $5 million loan she made herself earlier this year. Barack Obama's fund-raising advantage left Clinton with little choice but to give herself money."

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