Why Clinton Lost: The Obama Express

July 29, 2008 9:23am CST
To this point, a good bit of the focus of our symposium has been on the reasons Hillary Clinton lost the 2008 Democratic nomination, as opposed to the reasons Barack Obama won it. This makes sense, in a way. From an analytical standpoint, it's probably best to focus on the tactical mistakes of the past, rather than the tactical successes. My father was a leading academic in the field of technology and operations management; he first became well known for a 1984 paper which posited that it is best to study "things gone wrong" on the factory floor, on the assumption that things that go well are already understood. So it is, in a sense, with the Obama and Clinton campaigns. We can point rather easily to Obama's most striking successes; no Democratic presidential candidate in the near future, for example, will underplay the importance of caucus states in their election strategy. Nevertheless, I think that it's somewhat difficult to analyze Clinton's downfall, without studying vis-a-vis the successes of her former opponent. So I'm going to pose the question of just how difficult, or even impossible, Obama's own strengths as a candidate and strategist made Clinton's ultimate victory. Put another way: amid all the talk of Clinton's inevitability, was Obama the unstoppable one all along? Some of you probably think that's a silly question to even ask, and I understand why. Despite Obama's political blessings manifold, Hillary Clinton had the kind of institutional support and engendered the kind of unswerving loyalty in such a broad base of supporters that only the best of candidates could have overcome her advantages. Nevertheless, it is clear that Barack Obama is a genuine phenomenon, the greatest phenomenon in the party since at least Bill Clinton (and I seriously doubt that that has escaped the attention of Clinton himself). He has been a major factor in spurring Democratic primary turnout to record numbers (although Hillary Clinton and frankly George W. Bush deserve some credit for that too). He has raised astonishing amounts of money from astonishing numbers of individual donors. We've all seen the crowds large enough to fill football stadiums, the lines at school auditoriums wrapping three times around the block, all holding their breath for a glimpse of Barack Obama. We've all borne witness to the passion he engenders even in people who have not been especially political for most of their lives. I was in college in Illinois, watching Obama's Senate race, when he burst onto the national political scene in 2004 with his now-legendary speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. Being on an Illinois college campus for Obama's birth as a political rock star was a political experience unlike any I'd seen. I got back for fall quarter in 2004 and the Obama buttons, stickers and signs were everywhere, rivaling even the Kerry stickers for prominence. Because of his victory that fall, and Kerry's loss, Obama became the most popular politician on campus even before he took office in the U.S. Senate; he enjoyed such widespread adulation that it was almost off-putting (in the way that you're almost annoyed when an indie band you know and love suddenly hits it big, and then everybody and his brother has their T-shirt). On paper, it's difficult to draw up a more appealing candidate than Barack Obama. He is young, attractive, extremely intelligent and well-spoken, and has a fascinating variety of life experiences. Furthermore, his youth and relatively recent appearance on the national scene (though coupled with a very prominent national profile) left Obama in a uniquely strong position to position himself as a "change candidate", in a year when the electorate was desperate for anything other than what we've seen since Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House. Kos wrote "If Obama runs, he wins" in 2006. When Obama started to seriously consider running for the presidency, I myself assumed that he would be the nominee if he wanted to be (I didn't start to support Hillary Clinton until late summer 2007). I figured that Obama was the most charismatic figure in the party, had the largest and most flexible established following, and represented an obvious and appealing change from the last six years. So I think that while several mistakes were made by the Clinton campaign, it's entirely possible, even probable, that Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee today, four elections out of five. It so happens that this time, she went up against a candidate kissed by the gods, and even so, we saw a historically close result in the Democratic primary. As georgia10 wrote earlier, it's arguable that the greatest failure of the Clinton campaign was to fail to recognize (or alternatively, to dismiss) the genuine movement that was Obama 2008. I'm not so sure. To me, the story of the Clinton campaign since the Iowa loss has been an effort to contain that movement, whether by publicly dismissing it, or by galvanizing other parts of the electorate by pursuing a demographic-oriented strategy, or by publicly dismissing the impact of Obama's victories in smaller states by claiming victory in larger ones. You know, all the things that drove you crazy about the Clinton campaign if you're an Obama supporter. All of them, I suspect, were reactive to having confronted the scope and depth of the Obama movement and trying desperately to minimize its impact. I think that since Iowa, the Clinton campaign has been quite aware that they were up against a behemoth they could not control. They have used almost every strategy in the book to try and contain that behemoth, and they came damned close to so doing, but ultimately, not even a candidate with the strength and support of Hillary Rodham Clinton could contain the Obama phenomenon. How long has the campaign been out of Clinton's control? Since Super Tuesday? Since South Carolina? Since Iowa? I don't know, although I'd say that given her early decision to abandon caucus states to Obama (she figured she'd never need them, and that was probably the most critical mistake her campaign made), her last real chance to win the primary was on Super Tuesday. She had many chances to win this race; hell, if she'd voted against the IWR initially, there wouldn't have been much of a 2008 race in the first place. Still, I seriously doubt that Hillary Clinton would not be the nominee today, if anyone other than Barack Obama had been her primary opposition. As many of you probably know, I was an avowed supported of Hillary Clinton (which is interesting, because if you look at my profile as a young, well-educated, politically active, ethnic minority liberal male, I should by all rights be Obama's core voter). I supported Clinton more out of what I envisioned her presidency to be, rather than what I saw out of her as a candidate. That is how she sold herself, too, from the beginning of her campaign; she was a future president first, a candidate second. Generally, it may be a bad strategy to do this. But against someone like Barack Obama, almost no one in the world will ever be the stronger "candidate". So in a sense, perhaps Hillary Clinton made the only smart play in crafting her campaign strategy-she sold what she had to sell, and it just didn't work out. Was Obama unstoppable? Certainly not. But Clinton's loss is, I think, as attributable to a freakish set of circumstances (the presence of an exceptional candidate uniquely well positioned to present himself as an agent of change in an election in which the nation was begging for change), as to any mistakes made by her campaign team (and there were several, as the other front-pagers have written today). She could have won this race, of course she could have, and she nearly did. But I think it's an open question whether Hillary Clinton lost this election, ultimately, or whether Barack Obama won it.
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