So far, time has been on Obama’s side
OBAMAMENTUM., Democrat of , leaves the stage after a news conference on Saturday in .
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
WASHINGTON – They are certainly premature, but the post-mortems are beginning to roll in on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign. And should her campaign ultimately fail – Mrs. Clinton is clearly not out of it yet; she’s looking to wins in and on March 4 – there will be a lot of blame to spread around.
But without exonerating Mrs. Clinton’s campaign or Mrs. Clinton, there is one factor that, more than anything else, may prove to be the root cause of Mrs. Clinton’s troubles: Senator Barack Obama.
Political analysts and journalists, in judging a candidacy gone bad, invariably focus on a campaign’s bad moves and wrong turns, with a dash of the requisite infighting among powerful staff aides and complaints by contributors. And the Clinton campaign, after starting off smoothly and with such self-assurance, provided a wealth of that: Wasted money, bad strategic calls on what states to contest, a message that failed to grasp how the mood of Democrats had changed and the questionable deployment of a certain former president.
But could even the best-operated campaign – say, for example, if Mrs. Clinton’s campaign had been run by the crew that ran George W. Bush’s campaign in 2004 – have done better against Mr. Obama? To reflect a discussion that many Democrats are having these days: Could Mrs. Clinton have sailed to the nomination had Mr. Obama sat this one out, leaving her facing John Edwards of , who dropped out after losing four Democratic contests?
In Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton encountered an opponent whose campaign skills and public appeal were strong to begin with, and that have improved markedly every week he has been in this campaign. The man who sat next to her at the debate in last Thursday – and who is lifting people out of their seats in arenas across the country – is a much more polished, commanding and poised candidate than he was just months ago. Even Democrats inside Mrs. Clinton’s campaign point to Mr. Obama’s growth as a candidate as an example of why long presidential campaigns have some merit. Mr. Obama learned from his mistakes.
The confidence of Mrs. Clinton and her advisers last fall was based on their belief that Mr. Obama’s inexperience as a candidate would lead him to make mistakes on the campaign trail, and that the image of Mr. Obama’s making mistakes as a candidate would reinforce her central argument that he did not have experience to be president.
Did Mrs. Clinton and her campaign underestimate Mr. Obama’s potential as a candidate? Yes they did, to echo a phrase, but so did many people in Mr. Obama’s own campaign who had attended his often enervating campaign appearances in , or watched him fade to the back of the stage at candidate debates.
Did the Clinton campaign underestimate his appeal, in no small part because of the not-unreasonable assumption that many Americans were not prepared to elect a black man as president? Perhaps. But one of the things that happened was that Mr. Obama’s victories, particularly in states with overwhelmingly white populations, produced more victories for Mr. Obama by quelling doubts that Mrs. Clinton was trying to sow about his electability.
For the Clintons, the world changed with remarkable swiftness – all within a few days after Feb. 5, a day when more than 20 states voted, an outcome that left the two candidates essentially tied. This was the big turn where Mr. Obama’s campaign lapped Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. He had organizations and plans in place to compete in the 10 Democratic contests that took place before March 4, while Mrs. Clinton’s campaign made the decision that it could ride through a series of what it assumed would be small losses there until the and contests on March 4.
But this also was the period when Mr. Obama really caught fire as a candidate, and when the questions about his electability and appeal were erased. Thus, not only did Mr. Obama win these states, he won them big, building up a big delegate lead and cutting into Mrs. Clinton’s electoral coalition.
Mrs. Clinton has, in truth, been a very strong candidate. She has displayed an unerring command of issues, is focused on the campaign trail, strong at debates, evocative with crowds large and small. “She is better than her campaign,” said Harold Ickes, a long-time friend and a senior official in her campaign.
If Mrs. Clinton ends up losing the race, the real reason may be nothing more than she was not better than an opponent she could never have anticipated.