Monday, January 29, 2007

"A triangulator for non-triangulating times"

Geov Parrish:
As huge crowds gathered in Washington over the weekend to protest the war –- organizers on Saturday estimated half a million, while AP, the New York Times, and the Washington Post all opted for the ludicrously low-balled "tens of thousands" –- one leading politician was notable for fleeing the city ahead of the angry hordes. No, it wasn't President Bush, who stayed put in the White House. It was Hillary Clinton.
Clinton not only avoided the demonstration, but chose to compete with it in the Saturday news cycle, holding a high-profile "town hall" meeting in her first campaign visit to the all-important state of Iowa. All-important to everyone, that is, except Clinton, who had previously ignored the state and trails John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Tom Vilsack in the latest polling there.

Why doesn't Hillary care much about Iowa? Because she is running a slick, well-orchestrated, pitch-perfect campaign for President -– if this were 2000. Clinton's game is exactly what George Bush and Al Gore both did in securing their parties' nominations in that season, running to replacing a tarnished two-term president. Both went hard after their parties' major donors early, sucking all the money, media, and oxygen in 1999 out of what could have been competitive races, sewing up their nominations long before the first primary ballot had been cast. Gore had only to beat back a mild, quixotic challenge from Bill Bradley; Bush forced a host of lesser candidates out before beating back a similarly doomed dissident campaign by John McCain.

Textbook stuff, then. Except that Hillary and her many handlers haven't noticed this is not 1999; a lot has happened since the end of the'90s. George Bush's disastrous reign, for one. The Internet, for another. And, most critically for Hillary Clinton, a desperate yearning on the part of Americans of all political stripes not for a triangulating "centrist" in the Clinton mold, but for someone who can show themselves as both attuned and responsive to the national mood and capable of authenticity and bold leadership. Hillary Clinton could not be a less appropriate candidate for 2008.

She is hoping, ala 1999, that this won't matter; that she has and will have enough major donor money lined up, with little enough left for competitors, that by the time voters and caucus-goers get to actually choose, there will be no choice, just as there were no real party nomination choices in 2000. We've already seen this principle in action; at this preposterously early date Russ Feingold, Evan Bayh, and now John Kerry have all dropped their Democratic bids. But their departures owe more to the unexpected fundraising presence of Barack Obama. Obama, and to a lesser extent John Edwards, are both likely to survive to primary season, and both are presenting messages far more likely to resonate with the party faithful than Hillary Clinton's overcautious, made-for-1999 persona.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in this month's respective campaign launches of Obama and Clinton. Both used the Internet, but to very different effect. Obama webcast his campaign announcement in casual attire, and spoke directly with a message of hope and leadership, critiquing "politics as usual." On her webcast "conversations," in which she allegedly was giving viewers a look at an authentic, unscripted Hillary, Clinton fairly oozed "politics as usual." In response to vetted, often softball questions, she ran through a litany of standard Democratic talking points, liberally peppered with cliché. (I stopped counting the number of times we were to roll up our sleeves, something I doubt she ever, ever literally does.) She came across as a politician so slick, practiced, and out-of-touch that she has forgotten even what an authentic, unscripted moment looks and sounds like, let alone how to produce one, let alone how to actually have any.

Clinton's campaign is banking, literally, that it won't matter. At this point, with two long years to go, the Democratic nominee will have a huge advantage in 2008; 49 percent of Americans polled on generic party preference want to see a Democratic president, versus a staggeringly low 21 percent preference for a Republican. Her campaign knows that winning the nomination would mean that the presidency, far-right Hillary-hatred notwithstanding, would be hers to lose.

That's why the war chest approach. It's the only way she can win. Hillary has already lost control of Democratic voters. Her signature issue is the one issue she has tried hardest to avoid for four years: Iraq. The political sands here on Iraq, let alone those in Iraq itself, are changing faster than she can triangulate to accommodate them. In the runup to the nomination, Clinton will be a force anyway, because she has a huge financial machine behind her. She is offering a perfectly safe, unthreatening message for those wealthy and well-connected elites for whom the last six years have worked just fine. The rest of us, Iowans and war protestors included, don't matter so much, and are better avoided.

But Obama will be well-financed, too. And what Barack Obama understands intuitively, John Edwards is trying to offer, and Jim Webb demonstrated amply in his short, blunt State of the Union reply last week, is that we Americans now desperately want an honest leader who says what's on their, and our, mind.

This is politics in 2007 -– not 1999. Should the nomination actually be decided by voters next year –- which Obama's entry virtually ensured -– Clinton suddenly becomes a far less compelling candidate. Triangulation is so last millennium. In a warped way, Clinton is being authentic in her inauthenticity; she's being true to who she is. But that's not enough. Money notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton is an awful candidate for our times. She would make a worse President.

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