In Hillary's Campaign, Baghdad Never Quite Fell

The evidence mounts that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign for president lumbered into crisis and looming defeat for lack of wise listening, planning and spending — traits some look for in a potential commander in chief.

These and lack of a clear mission are some of the same shortcomings, it so happens, for which the senator from New York has harshly criticized President Bush’s oversight of the war in Iraq.

“The catalogue of miscalculations, misjudgments and mistakes in Iraq shocks the conscience,” Clinton said of the Bush administration’s “failed strategy” in a July 10 speech in Iowa.

“We’ve dug ourselves into a pretty deep hole, haven’t we?” she asked the crowd on that happier day. “But I am confident we can dig ourselves out.”

Clinton the candidate, however, looked buried alive in last night’s third and likely final one-on-one debate with Barack Obama. It shows just how fast things can go wrong on a battleground — even a metaphorical one — without adequate foresight and recalibration.

The intriguing parallels maybe didn’t occur to the mainstream media: Super Tuesday, with its rich spoils in delegate counts, was supposed to be the electoral equivalent for Hillary of mop-up operations after the fall of Baghdad.

Instead, the once-inevitable Democratic nominee stumbled into, well, a quagmire. Two questions going into the debate in Cleveland: Could she marshal the resources to “surge” back in her fight with the senator from Illinois? Or should she simply cut and stop running?

Critics might say Hillary went into the campaign as an overconfident superpower, capable of subduing all opponents with overwhelming force. After encountering some unexpectedly tough resistance (in Iowa), she marched on and defied her detractors by registering a huge win in Baghdad — er, New Hampshire.

But, while burning through tens of millions of dollars as lesser foes fell by the wayside, Clinton underestimated her main opponent. Even after South Carolina, she expected to secure victory over Obama on Super Tuesday. She all but proclaimed “mission accomplished.”

The action on the ground Feb. 5 didn’t play out that way, stopping Clinton well short and exposing the holes in her war plan. The campaign had no Plan B, no organization or strategy to win over smaller caucus states and wary voters.

It’s not a perfect analogy, of course. Though Clinton faulted Bush for rushing into Iraq without enough boots on the ground, her campaign had too many troops living high on the hog.

After the campaign sprung flagrantly for food, hotel rooms and high-priced consultants, not enough money was left to match Obama’s media buys and other spending, as The New York Times detailed.

A newly filed campaign finance report “appeared even to her most stalwart supporters and donors to be a road map of her political and management failings,” the Times reported. “Several of them, echoing political analysts, expressed concerns that Mrs. Clinton’s spending priorities amounted to costly errors in judgment that have hamstrung her competitiveness against [Obama].”

“We didn’t raise all of this money to keep paying consultants who have pursued basically the wrong strategy for a year now,” the Times quoted one “prominent New York donor” as saying.

The Democrat who repeatedly boasted she was ready to be commander in chief from Day One had exhausted her camp’s treasure — leaving it short of resources necessary for the long fight ahead. After Super Tuesday, Hillary suffered a long string of discouraging losses and eroding popular support.

Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel wrote: “She simply did not have the cash to compete in the post-Feb. 5 states, mostly because her campaign spending blueprint was built around two flawed premises: that no one would be able to match her fundraising and that the nomination would be decided on Super Tuesday.”

Now, catching up with Obama looks difficult, even hopeless. Some thought Hillary’s remarks at the end of the Feb. 21 debate had the whiff of surrender. (“Whatever happens, we’re going to be fine.”)

Stretched for time and resources going into the pre-Ohio and Texas showdown last week, Clinton and her generals (Wesley Clark among them) executed a last-chance “surge.” They deployed more forceful, incendiary rhetoric (“Shame on you, Barack Obama!”).

Last week, though, Hillary was mostly down to scolding, begging to differ on details and fixing a flinty stare on her implacably cool foe.

The weird parallels can’t be sustained, of course.

Can a surge of words over universal health care turn things around in Texas and Ohio? A “yes” response would seem to require, as a not-yet-humbled Hillary so eloquently phrased it in her putdown of Iraq surge architect Gen. David Petraeus, “the willing suspension of disbelief.”


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