Speaking at an Ohio press conference Saturday, Hillary Clinton showed that she won’t go quietly. She said, “Shame on you, Barack Obama. It is time you ran a campaign that is consistent with your messages in public. That’s what I expect from you.” Now that’s the Hillary we know and unlove so much.
She was almost feisty, almost sincere, almost grasping the fact that she had to demonstrate real humanity to Texas and Ohio voters if she’s going to have any chance of bailing out her sinking campaign. But the problem with Clinton is as old as Bill’s first campaign in Arkansas: Hillary is as cold as a dead fish. The junior senator from New York is as spontaneous and emotion-laden as a space shuttle launch. It’s all planning, calculation and stage-management with the Clintons. She’s like the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz”: heartless, creaking her campaign joints and unable to prove the humanity voters want in a president.
Washington wags used to say that sincerity is everything, and once you’ve learned to fake it you were home free. But that was Bubba’s trademark. The quivering lower lip, the endless apologies. The problem with Hillary is that underneath the craftiness there’s no heart.
In “Damn Yankees,” the great 1950’s Broadway musical, hero Joe Hardy is brought out of a batting slump when his fan club sings, “You’ve gotta have heart, All you really need is heart, When the odds are sayin’ you’ll never win, that’s when the grin should start.” But Hillary only reveals her heart in private, in moments when she’s chewing out Secret Service agents or tossing ash trays at Bill.
She almost had people fooled with her remark at end of the CNN debate in Austin, Texas last week. She said, "You know, no matter what happens in this contest, I am honored. I am honored to be here with Barack Obama." She sounded human, resigned to losing and spending the rest of her political life as the showy but irrelevant queen mother of the Democratic Party. But the moment was so uncharacteristic, it had to be followed by something like the Saturday outburst.
Tomorrow is the beginning of the rest of Hillary’s life. To recover, she needs to overcome a huge obstacle. In Texas, she’s ahead (about 50-42%) and in Ohio by a slimmer margin (48-46%). Even if she wins the popular vote in Texas, she may gain fewer delegates than Obama due to the odd primary-caucus mechanism of the Texas system. If she wins narrowly, she can hang on for a while. But if she doesn’t turn the trend around tomorrow night, she has very little chance to win the nomination.
Clinton was warm and fuzzy in the Texas debate but continued her slide in the polls, including the “super delegate” count, which improved by 20 for Obama last week. Tomorrow night in the Ohio debate is her last chance to score heavily against Obama. What can she do?
Change tactics. The Clintons, as skilled a pair of pols as we’ve seen in generations, are welded to tactics — triangulation, personal destruction and vague liberal nostrums — that aren’t working against Barack Obama. And they seem to have lost their ability to adapt and improvise. When they try, as they did last week, their improvisations fail badly.
First they tried to blame her failure on voters who aren’t living up to their obligation to the lingering Clinton. Hillary has done her part, said Bill, lecturing Texas voters that the burden of Hillary’s revival wasn’t hers saying, “…it’s all on you.” There’s nothing wrong with Bill and Hill, only with those buying Obama’s line.
Second, Hillary went nasty with Obama, and that didn’t work either. Her “shame on you” line left people cringing. The Clintons have always run as the underdog. Her oft-repeated line about the tough challenges she’s faced bravely only brings to mind the long string of bimbo eruptions that plagued Bill’s presidency. If Hillary had been human — reacting as any wife would to a husband’s philandering — she could have triggered a much different response. Now, it’s almost impossible for her to appear a sympathetic figure.
To change her tactic she has to convince voters she’s a different person than she has been throughout her — and Bill’s — political life. If she can’t do that in tomorrow night’s debate, she’s not going to win in Texas or Ohio. So what should we expect tomorrow night?
The Clintons possess all the moral restraint of a cornered rat. Tomorrow night, it’ll be Hillary out swinging her ax as hard as she can.
The “shame on you” comment will probably be the first question to both candidates. Obama will laugh it off, saying he’s proud of his campaign and that voters know his sincerity. Hillary will try to tie him down on issues. But the Democratic voter already knows that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between Hillary and Obama on policy. In this, Clinton will fail.
The Obama-Rezko connection may be Hillary’s only chance to tarnish the vacuous Obama. Her campaign has been pushing reporters to go after Obama’s background, ties to Rezko and two of the worst political terrorists of the 1970s, William Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn. Ayers was quoted in a 1976 documentary on the Weathermen saying, “I don’t regret setting bombs; I feel we didn’t do enough.” Ayers and Dorhn went from Weather Underground bombers to college professors. Ayers is on the board of the Woods Foundation of Chicago, to which Obama was apparently assigned as a young lawyer to the Woods Foundation. Was support from Woods the reason that Obama rose so quickly in the Illinois Democratic Party hierarchy?
The problem with this is threefold: first, the Clintons and the media have handled Obama softly, too softly, to this point. Making Ayers/Dohrn an issue now, in the brief soundbites of a debate, may be impossible. Third, this is a point that would benefit Clinton among moderates and Republicans, not Democratic activists and primary voters. If Hillary makes a lot of it tomorrow night, despite the fact that it’s a legitimate issue, she will cause another backlash, probably worse than the one Bill caused with his racial comments in South Carolina.
Hillary is the Tin Woman, heartless and with a tin ear to voters. Obama is the phenom: selling empty rhetoric, using against the Clintons what they used against Bush 41 in 1992. Beseeching voters for sympathy won’t work for Clinton tomorrow night. Going to war, beating Obama up with details of his past and “who’s ready to be president” won’t work either. What would work? Only turning back the clock twenty years and becoming a different person.
But there’s no Wizard of Oz to give Hillary a heart.
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