HRC ’08 and the Rolling Ball of Madness

It seems the appointment of a new campaign team–including a lot of ObamaWorld imports and a highly collaborative COO in Robby Mook–hasn’t quite quelled negative retrospectives of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign. At Bloomberg Business Joshua Green takes us on a nightmare trip through the lowest points of HRC ’08, with special emphasis on a relatively late (March) blowup between two factions with strongly held opposite views on the persona the candidate should project. Here’s his nut graph:

The seven years since Hillary Clinton’s last presidential bid have induced a kind of amnesia about the true reason for her loss, a subject newly relevant now that she’s running again. Several factors cloud our ability to recollect it clearly: the passage of time; Democrats’ desire to put a bruising primary race behind them; and, above all, the mythologizing of Barack Obama’s campaign brain trust, which cast him as a figure of destiny and her as someone who history swept aside.

But while Obama was indeed a rare talent, his skill alone wasn’t what cinched the nomination. Clinton blew a winnable race, despite having had almost every conceivable advantage. Oddly, the one thing she truly lacked was the very thing she chose to present as her primary qualification for the presidency: executive leadership skills. As Clinton often declared, in an obvious dig at Obama’s inexperience, she alone had the capacity to “do the job from Day One.” Yet whatever management skills Clinton may possess, she didn’t deploy in 2008.

I dunno about all that. If there’s any “amnesia” about the 2008 Democratic nomination contest, a better example might be how little has been said about Team Obama allowing HRC to pull off a shocking upset in New Hampshire after the post-Iowa polls showed her way, way done. It’s unlikely Clinton could have survived a loss there. So quite possibly the overconfidence, or–let’s just say it–incompetence of the otherwise brilliant Obama campaign wound up being extremely costly, and might well have lost BHO the nomination.

We don’t, of course, hear much about that because Obama did win. So it’s easier to examine the dysfunction in HillaryLand, particularly given the almost cartoonish image of pollster and “strategist” Mark Penn, one of the most thoroughly disliked figures in twentieth century politics, and who was often aligned with the irresistible figure of HRC’s meddling husband.

It’s also easy to telescope past events since we know how things turned out. The brouhaha Green focuses on didn’t cost HRC a winnable race; the deal had probably already gone down when she blew her entire campaign treasury on finishing third in Iowa and then conceded an array of small-state caucuses that enabled Obama to neutralize her delegate haul from a late surge in large-state primaries. You can make the case that HRC lost when she blew off deputy campaign manager Mike Henry’s May 2007 memo (which Green does discuss, but more as an example of the leak-a-rific tendencies of HillaryLand ’98) advising her that Iowa was a trap she should simply avoid.

But you know what? Hindsight also helps explain why HRC did go for broke in Iowa, which left her broke and on the edge of final defeat almost immediately. The minute Obama won Iowa and established his national viability, two things happened that were very damaging to HRC: first, her African-American support, once quite formidable, evaporated; and second, Obama’s “story” eclipsed HRC’s in media accounts and in the popular imagination. The chance of stopping all that before it could happen was worth a pretty big gamble. Had she won, perhaps the back-biting rivalries in her campaign would have still grown toxic and gone public, but who would ultimately care other than the principals?

As I’ve said here before, most campaigns in competitive high-stakes contests are rolling balls of madness, though both major-party presidential campaigns in 2012 may have been exceptions. Green suggests that Clinton’s lack of strong intra-party competition this time around means any serious dysfunction might not emerge until the general election campaign, when there’s little time for corrective action. This strikes me as similar to the fear that some horrible secret about her will come out in August of 2016 and consign America to a Walker or Bush or Rubio or Paul administration: sure, it’s always possible, but the odds of an unvetted secret, or an imploding campaign staff, are probably lower for HRC than for anyone else you can imagine precisely because she’s been there before. Unless you think she is simply incapable of learning from mistakes, the much simpler landscape of this presidential cycle ought to make the process relatively smooth. Plus Mark Penn’s not around, though perhaps photos of him should be posted in campaign HQ with instructions that guards eject him on sight.

UPDATE: In response to commenter June D, no, I have no specific evidence that Obama campaign “incompetence” caused him to lose a primary that might have ended the whole thing months earlier, and where early polls showed him way, way up. But I have to presume something went wrong. Sorry, but I do not believe thousands of people changed their minds because HRC cried in public. There was talk at the time of Obama campaign “overconfidence,” but that, too, is imprecise. I’d like to learn more, not that it matters any more.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.