DES MOINES — During one of the 1996 presidential debates, Bill Clinton delivered a skillful rejoinder to Bob Dole when the Republican candidate accused him of running “a very liberal administration.”
“It’s sort of their golden oldie, you know,” Clinton said. “It’s a record they think they can play that everybody loves to hear. And I just don’t think that dog will hunt this time.”
Clinton could have just as well been speaking about his wife’s presidential campaign. With few tangible accomplishments of her own, Hillary Clinton launched her White House bid almost a year ago based largely on her husband’s record, and on the promise of a return to the 1990s.
Well, on Thursday night, that dog didn’t hunt.
Democratic voters overwhelmingly wanted change, and they didn’t define change as turning back the clock 16 years. Instead, they came out in massive numbers to support the charismatic freshman Senator Barack Obama, and the former First Lady was relegated to a third place finish.
ON THE NIGHT before the caucuses, Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton shared the stage together at the State Historical Museum Building in downtown Des Moines. Had Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” been playing in the background, it would have served as the perfect interactive exhibit: a 1992 Clinton campaign rally.
“It’s been wonderful having my family with me,” Hillary said after Bill introduced her, “and I think we were all just reminded what it was like to have a Democratic president of our country.” It was a not so subtle appeal to Democratic nostalgia for her husband, which has been the cornerstone of her campaign.
There was a time when it seemed like her last name would be enough to put her over the top in Iowa, but to those who were observing her up close in the days leading up to the caucuses, it was clear that the writing was on the wall. In campaign appearances, she was worn out and her voice was hoarse. She was also increasingly defensive about her repeated references to her husband’s administration.
“When I talk about the ’90s, some of my opponents say, ‘Oh, there she goes again, talking about the past,'” Clinton said in Ames on Tuesday. “You know, it is not like I’m talking about ancient Rome. We are talking ten years ago. It’s within our memories.”
It isn’t only that Clinton has been campaigning on her husband’s record from the 1990s, but she has actually run the campaign as if it were her husband’s campaign from 1992.
In late October, when Clinton had a lousy debate performance because she took several positions on driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, her instant reaction was to return to the war room mentality that served her husband well 15 years earlier.
First her campaign launched an attack on moderator Tim Russert and then it tried to blame all the male candidates for “piling on” her as a woman.
As Obama began to rise in polls, panic ensued, and a scorched earth strategy was employed. Either directly or through surrogates, the Clinton campaign went after Obama’s kindergarten records, they tried to portray him as a Muslim, and they brought up his past drug use.
That might have worked in 1992, but this time around, it only served to reinforce the appeal of Obama’s call for “a new kind of politics” that is positive in tone and attempts to bring people together.
SKEPTICS LIKED TO portray Obama as a rube, but he played this one beautifully. While Clinton faded in the days leading up to the caucuses, Obama found his stride, and there was a sense that he was tapping into the gut of the Democratic voter the way Bill Clinton did in 1992.
At a rally in a Des Moines high school on Sunday night, he poked fun at these slash and burn political tactics, and had the crowd of over 1,000 eating out of his hands.
“I do not choose to run because of long-held ambitions,” he said, and joked, “I know that people have been going through my Kindergarten papers.” He continued, twisting the knife, “I did not choose to run because it was somehow owed to me, because it was my turn.”
On Thursday night, Clinton appeared before a crowd of Iowans who chanted “New Hamp-shire” and “Hill-a-ry” as she tried to convince the world that she had always intended to run a national campaign.
But the external show of enthusiasm could not hide the blow the defeat represented to her campaign. “This is really sad,” I heard one supporter remark to her friend as she made her way out of Clinton’s speech.
After Clinton addressed her supporters in a hotel ballroom downtown, Obama electrified a crowd of several thousand at the Hy-Vee Hall. “You said, the time has come to move beyond the bitterness, and pettiness, and anger that’s consuming Washington,” Obama beamed.
The biggest obstacle Obama had to overcome in this campaign was the perception that he was a lightweight and that the movement he was building wouldn’t translate into actual votes. Now that he has shed this perception, he will ride the wave of change to the Democratic nomination.
Though some would hesitate to be so bold, as far as this observer is concerned, the era of the Clintons is over.
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