“This is death by a thousand cuts.” That’s what they keep saying about Hillary Clinton.
Think of what this week was for her. She awoke each day having to absorb new sentences in a paragraph of woe:
Three more primary losses, not even close. Now it’s eight in a row. A slide in the national polls. Staff shakeup: soap-opera-watching campaign manager out, deputy out. Bill’s former campaign manager, David Wilhelm, jumps for Barack Obama. Josh Green, in a stunning piece that might be called a meticulously reported notebook dump, says, in The Atlantic, that Mrs. Clinton made personnel decisions based only on loyalty, not talent and skill. (There’s a lot of that in the Bush White House. The loyalty obsession is never a sign of health.) The Wall Street Journal reports “internal frictions” flaring in the open, with Clinton campaign guru Mark Penn yelling, “Your ad doesn’t work!” to ad maker Mandy Grunwald, who fires back, “Oh, it’s always the ad, never the message.” (This is a classic campaign argument. The problem is almost always the message. Getting the message right requires answering this question: Why are we here? This is the hardest question to answer in politics. Most staffs, and gurus, don’t know or can’t say.) On a conference call Tuesday morning, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, told reporters Mrs. Clinton simply cannot catch up. It is “next to impossible” for her to get past him on pledged delegates, she’d need “a blowout victory” of 20 to 30 points in the coming states, the superdelegates will “ratify” what the voters do. (I wrote in my notes, “not gloating—asserting as fact.”) Within the hour Mr. Plouffe’s words were headlined on Politico, made Drudge, and became topic one on the evening news shows. Veteran Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier took a stab at an early postmortem in what seemed a long-suppressed blurt: The Clintons always treated party leaders as “an extension of their . . . ambitions,” “pawns in a game of success and survival. She may pay a high price for their selfishness soon.” He cited party insiders: Superdelegates “won’t hesitate to ditch” Mrs. Clinton if her problems persist. To top it all off, Mrs. Clinton has, for 30 years, held deep respect for her husband’s political acumen, for his natural, instinctive sense of how to campaign. And he’s never let her down. Now he’s flat-footed, an oaf lurching from local radio interview to finger-pointing lecture. Where did the golden gut go? How did his gifts abandon him? Abandon her? Her campaign blew through $120 million. How did this happen?
The thing about that paragraph is it could be longer.
And it all happened in public and within her party. The dread Republicans she is used to hating, whom she seems to pay no psychic price for hating, and who hate her right back, are not doing this to her. Her party is doing this.
Her whole life right now is a reverse Sally Field. She’s looking out at an audience of colleagues and saying, “You don’t like me, you really don’t like me!”
Although of course she’s not saying it. Her response to what from the outside looks like catastrophe? A glassy-eyed insistence that all is well. “I’m tested, I’m ready, let’s make it happen!” she yelled into a mic on a stage in Texas on the night of her latest defeat. This is meant to look like confidence. Whether or not you wish her well probably determines whether you see it as game face, stubbornness or evidence of mild derangement.
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In Virginia last Sunday, two days before the Little Tuesday voting, she suggested her problem is that she’s not a big phony. “People say to me all the time, ‘You’re so specific. . . . Why don’t you just come and, you know, really just give us one of those great rhetorical flourishes and then, you know, get everybody all whooped up.’ “
When she said it, I thought it might be a sign that Mrs. Clinton was beginning to accept the idea that she might lose. I thought it was a way of explaining to others—a way of explaining to herself—why things hadn’t worked. A riff that wasn’t a riff but a marker, a rationale for a loss, an explanation of why she failed that could be archived by television producers—Hillary on the trail, 2/10/08—and retrieved the day she concedes. A 15-second piece of videotape that tells the story her way, with an admission that was actually a boast. I could do that big rhetorical stuff if I wanted to, and if I thought it were best for our country. But I’m too earnest to do that, too sincere, and in fact too knowledgeable. That’s why I deal in specifics. Because I know them.
I thought it an acknowledgement that loss might come. But by Thursday afternoon, Mrs. Clinton was furiously stumping through Ohio using the same line of attack, but this time it wasn’t a marker. The race is about “speeches versus solutions.” Her unnamed opponent stands for the first, she for the second. He is all “words,” she is “action.” “Words are cheap,” she said.
If they were so cheap, her inability to marshal them would not have cost her so dearly.
She has also taken to raising boxing gloves and waving them triumphantly from the podium. Is this a fruitful way to go? It’s her way, bluster and combat. People do what they know how to do.
A better way might be honesty. I say this in the sense that an old Richard Nixon hand used it when he said, “Nixon doesn’t always think honesty is the best policy, but he does think it’s a policy.” He saw it as a strategic gambit, to be used like any other.
But imagine if she tried honesty and humility. When everyone in America knows you’re in a dreadful position, admit you’re in a dreadful position. Don’t lie about it and make them roll their eyes, tell the truth and make them blink.
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As in: “Look, let’s be frank. A lot of politics is spin, for reasons we can all write books about. I’m as guilty as anyone else. But right now I’m in the fight of my life, and right now I’m not winning. I’m up against an opponent who’s classy and accomplished and who has captured the public imagination. I’ve had some trouble doing that. I’m not one of those people you think of when you hear a phrase like ‘the romance of history.’ But I think I bring some things to the table that I haven’t quite managed to explain. I think I’ve got a case to be made that I haven’t quite succeeded in making. And I’m going to ask you for one more try. Will you listen? And if I convince you, will you help me? Because I need your help.”
Could Mrs. Clinton do something like this? I doubt it. She’d think it concedes too much and would look weak. But maybe it would show an emotional suppleness, and a characterological ability to see things as they are, which is always nice in a president.
And no one would say it was deranged. They might, in fact, feel sympathy. And Mrs. Clinton has always seemed to enjoy that.