The Spectacle Blog

The Clinton Meltdown

By on 8.12.08 | 5:56PM

I just read through Joshua Green's article on Hillary Clinton's collapse in the Atlantic, which was based on internal memos and accounts of campaign staff, and a few things struck me.

Though Clinton focused much of her campaign around the claim that she was "ready to lead from day one," the piece exposes her managerial incompetence and inability to make key decisions or to institute a clear chain of command among her bikering staff. She couldn't figure out whether she wanted to run a positive campaign that tried to soften her image, or to agressively take down Obama.

Green offers this account of a post-Iowa conference call:

In the hours after she finished third in Iowa, on January 3, Clinton seized control of her campaign, even as her advisers continued fighting about whether to go negative. The next morning's conference call began with awkward silence, and then Penn recapped the damage and mumbled something about how badly they'd been hurt by young voters.

Mustering enthusiasm, Clinton declared that the campaign was mistaken not to have competed harder for the youth vote and that-overruling her New Hampshire staff-she would take questions at town-hall meetings designed to draw comparative," but not negative, contrasts with Obama. Hearing little response, Clinton began to grow angry, according to a participant's notes. She complained of being outmaneuvered in Iowa and being painted as the establishment candidate. The race, she insisted, now had "three front-runners." More silence ensued. "This has been a very instructive call, talking to myself," she snapped, and hung up.


In the grim days of March, Green writes:
Yet the clashes and paralysis continued. In the aftermath of Obama's historic race speech on March 18, Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas congresswoman, urged Clinton to deliver a speech of her own on gender. Clinton appeared very much to want to do this, and solicited the advice of her staff, which characteristically split. The campaign went back and forth for weeks. Opponents argued that her oratory couldn't possibly match Obama's, and proponents countered that she would get credit simply for trying, inspire legions of women to her cause, and highlight an issue that everyone in the campaign fiercely believed was hurting them-sexism. But Clinton never made a decision, and seemed troubled by the concern of Ann Lewis, perhaps her most venerable feminist adviser, who opposed such a speech for fear that it would equate sexism with racism -- another contrast with Obama that Clinton feared she would lose.

In a sense, a lot of this is a useless exercise, because no matter what the strategy she employed, I'm not sure that Clinton could have taken down Obama, given his tremendous political talents and the fact that he was really tapping into what Democrats were feeling in this cycle. His initial opposition to the Iraq War and her vote for the war was just an absolute killer in Iowa. And Obama's coalition of upper class whites, young voters, and blacks was something we've never seen before in Democratic primaries.

With that said, I wonder if Clinton would have been a lot better off had she collapsed earlier, like McCain did last summer. That would have enabled her to refocus her message, adjust her strategy, and reshuffle her staff with plenty of time to recover. As it turned out, by the time the campaign realized she was in trouble, it was too late.

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