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How did it come to pass that the shrewdest and most talented political team in a century lost a presidential nomination after enjoying some of the most daunting advantages in history?
Hillary Clinton enjoyed the money, the fame, the connections and a public nostalgia for a presidency that had brought the nation a far better fate than it had endured under the intervening worst presidency in history.
What could account for the long slide that brought her to the point this week that her candidacy rested on the very compelling premise that no one dared articulate plainly but that was demonstrated by state-by-state polls: She was more likely to win an electoral-college victory than Sen. Barack Obama because bigots across the South and industrial Midwest were more apt to vote for her than for a black man. Political analysts said Obama had not been able to craft a good message for blue-collar workers, but it's really coarser than that.
Ninety percent of the explanation is the magnetic charm of Obama, the first inspiring young political leader in 40 years, since the young Kennedys. But the other critical 10 percent belongs to Sen. Clinton, or rather the Clintons, and their surprising strategic and personal failings.
Persuaded by the universal wisdom of the pundits and analysts that the nomination would essentially be decided by the big states on Super Tuesday, she invested everything there and virtually nothing in those reliably red and thus meaningless states of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains with their absurd caucuses and feeble primaries. But those states and the Republican South were where the Democratic nomination was won. Obama saw what should have been plain to everyone a year ago, that the vote would be distributed enough that a big-state strategy would come up short. She did invest heavily in the early Nevada caucus on Jan. 19 and won, which suggests that she might have done well in the others, too, if she had tried. Merely narrowing the margin in a half-dozen of them would have altered the dynamics and yielded her the nomination.
A telling story is the early prediction by Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, in a brainstorming session that the nomination would be hers after she won the California primary and its 370 delegates. That strategy worked for John McCain because the winner took everything in the big-state Republican primaries, but every Democratic primary and caucus distributed delegates proportionally. That truth still didn't change the strategy.
But the tactical and personal gaffes by the Clintons were more perplexing. Yes, nearly all the talking heads on all the networks transparently wanted them to fail and celebrated and magnified every blunder and insensitive remark — the Clintons have always triggered that impulse — but that had a trivial effect on the race.
Her mistakes were of a compounding nature, shifting messages (experience counts, or should it be change?) and positions in a way that reinforced the suspicion that she was a political weathervane who always looked for the most currently tenable position. She had voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq in the fall of 2002 and spoke urgently for it, which was the albatross of her campaign. She tried to explain it as something else, a subtle way to actually avoid war.
Then came the critical blunder that sapped the campaign of momentum. In the biggest debate of the campaign, at Drexel University at Philadelphia on Oct. 31, she seemed to embrace New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to give driver's licenses to illegal aliens and then to back off when all the other candidates pounced on it. She insisted that she had not intended to endorse the idea but merely explained why he proposed it. She refused to say whether it was a good idea or not.
Two weeks later, she heartily supported Spitzer's decision to scrap the plan, according to some reports after her campaign had prevailed on him to bail her out. It neutralized the immediate controversy but she was no longer invulnerable.
Bill Clinton supplied the other lethal blow, his comment the day of Obama's victory in South Carolina that, so what, Rev. Jesse Jackson had carried the state, too. The reaction was overblown — he may not have been saying, as the media portrayed it, that Obama was just another black niche candidate — but Clinton has always had a finely tuned ear for the public mood and he would have been more careful in better days.
An Arkansas doctor who was a passionate supporter of the Clintons was shocked by the remark because he believed it showed that even the Clintons would try to exploit prejudice, if ever so subtly. He could not be persuaded that they intended anything else by that and other delicately tinged remarks about race, and his family became Obama supporters. They were not alone.
They will now have to endure the regrets not only about a lost presidency but also about the damage inflicted on a great legacy.
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