Published December 17, 2007
We haven't reached the point where the wheels are coming off the Clinton campaign. But we're getting close.
The last few weeks have been very bad ones for her, from her contradictory answers (within two minutes) on whether illegal aliens should get drivers licenses, to Bill Clinton's (false) claim that he opposed the Iraq war from the start, to the resignation of Bill Shaheen, Clinton's New Hampshire co-chair who put Obama's past use of drugs into play (causing Clinton to apologize).
But there are deeper currents at work that explain why Barack Obama is now the Democratic front-runner (he leads in Iowa and New Hampshire is a toss-up; Howard Fineman of Newsweek reports that people are literally exchanging her lawn signs for his).
At the outset of the campaign, Obama neutralized what were thought to be the two great advantages of Hillary Clinton: fundraising and organization. Once Obama had achieved a level playing field there, the race would be decided on who is the better candidate. And in my estimation, it's not a close call: Obama is a far more impressive (even if more inexperienced) political talent.
Barack Obama's standing in the race is based largely on what he's done; Hillary Clinton's standing in the race is based largely on what her husband did.
Hillary Clinton is an average candidate. She is more disciplined than her husband – but then, who is not? She does not possess any of his charm or “people skills.” While she has a good (not great) command of the issues, she comes across as highly scripted, cold, calculating, and sometimes shrill. She has very little connection with audiences. Until the last few weeks she went more or less unchallenged by her opponents, which created the false impression that she was running a brilliant campaign.
The support for Hillary has always struck me as largely duty-bound; it is as if some Democrats believed they owed her their vote for past services, for the humiliation her husband put her through and because (in their mind) she was the object of attacks by the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” But that is not enough to sustain a candidacy – and for Hillary, the applause from Democrats always seems to be louder when she'd introduced then when she'd done speaking.
Beyond that is Clinton Fatigue, which exists even among some Democrats. It is the sense people have that they don't want to return to the psychodrama of the Clinton years, the turbulence of their personal lives, and the Clinton “war room” mentality. The ease with which they seek out and destroy political opponents and those whom they believe stand in the way of their ambitions – whether they are women Bill Clinton has had affairs with or independent counsels or other candidates – is wearying (to say nothing of deeply troubling and Nixonian).
Sidney Blumenthal and his conspiracy brand of politics and Paul Begala and his scorched-earth rhetoric seem so yesterday.
The support for Obama, on the other hand, is more spontaneous, genuine, and intense. His call to turn the page on the politics of the past has resonance, in part because he seems to fit the message so well. Obama comes across as likeable, civil, grounded, and not reflexively partisan (even though he might well be). He has undeniable star power. And if he wins early, the pieces are in place for him to keep winning.
The main problem with Obama is that he is so conventionally liberal, which may not hurt him in the Democratic primaries but would cost him in a general election. His foreign policy experience is extremely thin – and on the major issue confronting America, the war against militant Islam, he is manifestly weak. On virtually every front in the war against jihadism, he would pull back. At the end of the day, the acid test in a general election is where a candidate stands on the issues – and Obama's liberalism will eventually be Obama's weakness. But that would matter more in the summer of '08 than it does in the winter of '07.
It's still too early to draw any definitive conclusions about this race. There are ebbs and flows to politics, especially in this highly fluid political year, and a huge amount can (and probably will) happen between now and February 5. What seems inevitable one day seems improbable the next. In addition, the Clinton machine is efficient and ruthless; Barack Obama has never encountered anything like it. But like Ali against Foreman, Obama seems to me to have the right style in this match-up.
Right now, Obama is riding a wave that I don't think will recede.