Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Ready on Day One

Hillary Clinton is one of the bright lights in American politics.  She is super bright and has proven herself to be an able senator, widely respected by her colleagues.  She represents her adopted state well and ran a smart initial campaign focusing much of her effort on Upstate New York, where Democrats are weakest.  She came to that race with a well-oiled political organization that, without a presidential campaign to manage, was able to employ its considerable skills and experience on her behalf.  Her reelection campaign was a cakewalk, but well deserved.  She had performed.  That history, combined with the expected strategic support of the man widely, and rightly, considered the most talented politician of his generation, was the context in which the 2008 race began more than a year ago.  For the many months of seemingly endless campaigning leading up to Iowa, the Clinton campaign was constantly described by pundits one and all as “flawless”.  She held a commanding lead in the national polls; smaller but nonetheless impressive in the early states.  Her nomination and election were widely assumed (probably by the candidate herself) to be inevitable.  She had raised a considerable war chest which included $32 Million earmarked for the general election, another expression of confidence.  Indeed, from day one her speeches were aimed as much, if not more, at the general election as at a competitive primary.

Given those overwhelming odds, its surprising that so many candidates entered the race, perhaps the best group of contenders seen in modern times.  Virtually all were credible potential presidents.  But given the inevitable, what were they thinking?  In retrospect, that so many smart people entered the race should have served as an early warning that something was missing in the Clinton juggernaut.  That something first became evident when Barack Obama won Iowa and, through the Internet that Howard Dean had used so effectively four years earlier, had amassed a competitive war chest of his own.  Dean, we all remember painfully, failed in Iowa because of a faulty ground operation; Obama won because of a vastly superior one.  That, too, was a hint of things to come.  The press latched onto the Illinois Senator and began to write Clinton’s epitaph.  New Hampshire changed all that and inevitability was back on track.  The tight schedule that followed worked in her favor; the turnaround story further fueled by some impressive big state victories.  But, to the great surprise of both the Clinton organization and the press, Super Tuesday was big but by no means conclusive.  Obama performed decently where Clinton won and, most significantly began to take a commanding lead in caucus states.  It turns out that his ground organization in Iowa was not an anomaly but part of a fine-tuned machine.  It had both reach and depth.  Local supporters organized systematically for months ahead and then were augmented by the national campaign workers in the final weeks.  Jim Doyle, the veteran politician Governor of Wisconsin, marveled last night on how the nationals integrated seamlessly with the locals, something he had never before seen.

Over confidence has always been the Achilles Heal of politicians.  Not taking the caucuses seriously may ultimately prove a fatal flaw.  But there is something even more significant at play.  Ironically it is an echo of George Bush’s Iraq invasion – no planning for the day after.  Clinton expected to finish off all her opponents on Super Tuesday and apparently made no plans for the day after.  That included expending her war chest and having inadequate organization in place for the races ahead.  Perhaps Bill Clinton’s machine was something of a wonder in 1992 and 1996, but 2008 may prove that Obama’s is better, perhaps substantially so.   And that brings me to Senator Clinton’s most consistent campaign claim – “ready on day one”.  Performance, not words, is what’s required.  Well, if performance and, assumably, management are at issue, this campaign would suggest that perhaps it’s Barack Obama who will be ready on day one.  Apparently a large number of voters think that to be the case.

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