March 25, 2008

No End In Sight: The Clinton Machine Rumbles Onward

Since it is that time of year, perhaps a basketball analogy is in order. Hillary Clinton's campaign is the (once) heavily favored high-octane powerhouse whom analysts had predicted to win the game because of superior skills, experience and determination. For various reasons however, team Clinton finds itself down by 15 points in the closing seconds of the 4th quarter. They have given their best effort in a hard-fought and tightly contested game, but have come up short. They have lost the contest fair and square. Still, team Clinton is utilizing the final moments of the game to foul team Obama every 2 seconds, prolonging the inevitable while the crowd becomes restless and starts to boo while heading for the exits. Nothing short of a miraculous barrage of three-pointers and steals by team Clinton combined with some missed free-throws by team Obama could change the outcome. Unfazed by the scoreboard, team Clinton is going to fight to the death, lobbying the referees to change the rules, accusing the other team of cheating and calling the fans traitors.

In today's New York Times, conservative columnist David Brooks wrote an op-ed piece that I actually agree with. If you are not familiar with Mr. Brooks, he is a prominent commentator (frequently appearing on NPR, PBS and print media) who I generally disagree with because of his longstanding support of the Iraq war, Bush's tax cuts and a few other issues. (To his credit, it should be noted that Mr. Brooks is not a Limbaugh/Fox News type of conservative voice. His commentary strikes me as much more moderate, respectful and intelligent than the far-right pundits who intentionally position themselves as political lightning rods, but I digress.) Brooks essentially concludes that because of the delegate math, the lack of a Michigan or Florida primary re-vote, the unwillingness of superdelegates to go against the elected delegate count, Obama's recent endorsement from Bill Richardson as well as his slim national poll lead despite the Rev. Wright sound-byte "scandal", there is only a 5% chance of Hillary winning the nomination.

Only five percent? Ok, that sounds good for the Obama-ites, but that doesn't answer the question of how long this heavyweight slugfest will continue. How long will it remain interesting and energizing to Democratic voters before it becomes stale and repulsive? The answer: it's pretty much up to Hillary. She still has the option of taking the high road and withdrawing gracefully in the coming weeks (although the primary calendar doesn't really provide an ideal date for this- May 6th after North Carolina?) or she can continue to drag it out with her current modus operandi, the win-at-all-costs strategy, which some in political junkie-land have referred to as "scorched earth" or "kitchen sink" politics. Brooks calls it "the audacity of hopelessness."

So if he's really got a 95% chance to finally wrap this thing up, why hasn't Obama run out the clock and closed the deal? I believe it's a matter of strengths and weaknesses. In baseball, home run hitters tend to strike out a lot. Their strength, the ability to blast the ball into the stratosphere with one mighty swing, is balanced out by their weakness, the increased likelihood of missing the ball completely when that mighty swing isn't perfectly timed.

Strengths and weaknesses are often two sides of the same coin and it's no different with politicians. George W. Bush's greatest strength has been his tell-it-like-he-sees-it authenticity. You always know where he stands. His weakness: a stubborn unwillingness to respectfully dialogue with those who don't share his point of view. In 2004, John Kerry became his party's nominee because of his lengthy record of public service and his ability to articulate the details and nuances of his positions. Unfortunately for him, his vast experience also provided Republicans with an all-you-can-eat buffet of out-of-context attack fodder, while his wordy, meandering speeches came across as aristocratic elitism from someone who seemed out of touch with reality. The Swift Boat, originally an image of Kerry's military heroism, was hijacked to become the torpedo that would sink his campaign. As America's 42nd President, Bill Clinton's greatest strength was his youthful charisma that enabled him to bridge political divisions to build a "centrist" economic policy that resulted in a 65% approval rating at the time he left office, the highest end-of-presidency rating of any post-WWII president. His weakness, well, I think we all know about the dark side of his youthful charisma.

Back to the Obama vs. Clinton standoff. It seems that Mr. Obama's inability to "finish off" Mrs. Clinton stems from the same quality that has gained him such a large following in the first place: he is a different kind of politician. He continually rejects the politics-as-usual tactics of divide and conquer, slash and burn. His ability to energize younger voters and re-invigorate the disillusioned has been his greatest strength. On the flip side, his reluctance to "go for the kill" has allowed the Clinton campaign to stay in the race and even draw him into some of the tit-for-tat political skirmishes that he's been trying to avoid.

As for Hillary, her intelligent, quick-witted, all-out competitive determination has made her a political force to be reckoned with as well as the most successful female Presidential candidate in American history, regardless of whether she wins or not. She does well in debates and no one exploits a weakness the way team Clinton does. At the same time, the persistence and killer instinct that has brought her this far will not likely allow her to throw in the towel until she has exhausted every possible tactic that she's learned in her 35-year climb to the top. Who else would have stayed in the race after 12 consecutive defeats? In the end, she might actually be undone by her dogged willpower that turns people off and leaves a bitter aftertaste. In any case, it's very clear that she's not going down without a fight. Until the clock runs out, she will explore Obama's every unflattering angle. Poll numbers can be replaced with more favorable ones. Defeats can be spun into contests that she wasn't really counting on. Each victory can be magnified as a glorious comeback in a crucial state. Delegates can always change their mind. This won't be over until she says it's over.

There are still a few seconds on the clock. Hillary can still foul Barack Hussein Obama and hope he misses his free-throws. She can still hoist up off-balance three pointers from half-court. She can still work the refs or lobby for a new way of keeping score. Just because her strategy isn't working doesn't mean that it won't continue until the final buzzer. And who is the happiest spectator of all? That would be John McCain. In fact, I think he's heading back to the concession stand for more popcorn.

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