Regular readers of this column know I dispense accolades to Democrats as sparingly as a sixpence from Scrooge. But I have to admit I’m impressed with the strategic and tactical prowess of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
In the choppy waters of the Democratic primary, she consistently navigates challenging shoals, capitalizing on the advantages of her front-runner status without taking on a lot of water as early leaders often do. Conservatives who believe the New York senator can’t win the White House because she is “too polarizing” or “too liberal” may need to recalibrate those views.
Out of the docks early, the 2008 presidential race looks like a round-the-world voyage that could give even a seasoned deck mate scurvy. Its sheer time span means reporters require a constant supply of red meat. Eager to please, Mrs. Clinton’s camp serves up a fresh helping nearly every day. It’s not only the media that requires regular sustenance. With the exception of those who have not yet scraped their 2004 bumper stickers off their cars, keeping Americans interested in a far-off presidential election is another daunting challenge. Mrs. Clinton did something very clever last week by opening up a new package of chow that has the media chewing hard. And what a great story: the two Democratic front-runners, Mrs. Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, going at each other like Michael Vick’s dogs on an issue not traditionally in the Democrats’ sweet spot — national security and foreign policy.
The Sunday shows were replete with coverage about the nasty snarls during and following the CNN/YouTube presidential debate. What precipitated the political barking is now well known. Asked if he would meet with various dictators and socialist potentates, Mr. Obama answered, “I would.” He added, “The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding principle of this administration — is ridiculous.” Mrs. Clinton bit back hard, remarking in the press the next day that Mr. Obama’s remarks were both “irresponsible” and “naive.”
The Illinois senator stepped in a big pile of dog dropping — again. The first example occurred during the South Carolina debate in April, when he answered a question with a rather lame response about the proper response to a terrorist attack. Mr. Obama said we had to make sure we organized an effective emergency response. Most believe a better retort would have focused on a forceful military retaliation. As Charles Krauthammer wrote last week, Mr. Obama was “asked to be commander in chief [but] could only play first responder in chief.”
Mr. Obama’s more recent stumble was, according to Mr. Krauthammer, “strike two.” So chalk up some major points for Mrs. Clinton and her team last week. She not only picked a fight — which always draws a crowd — but she also bloodied her top rival in the process. Not a bad few days for a candidate running an incredibly smart race in a challenging environment.
At a broader strategic level, Mrs. Clinton’s success also continues to impress me. Some of it is due to smart positioning, but she is also the benefactor of her party’s political drift. Four years ago most would have predicted she would be among the most liberal in the race. But because of her own party’s lurch to the left, she now appears to be the most moderate of the top tier candidates. Even on issues like the war in Iraq, she is threading the needle — opposed enough to satisfy many Democratic voters without appearing reckless and taking a “consequences be damned” approach adopted by many in her party.
This campaign still has miles of open water to navigate. Few recall that at this point in the 2004 race Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman led most national Democratic primary polls. But so far Mrs. Clinton has maximized her front-runner status without the insignificant gaffes that often snag early leaders.
And she does so with less mindless and dangerous pandering to the left. If Mrs. Clinton maintains this pace and swing voters continue to cut heavily against Republicans — as most polls still show she is positioned better than anyone in her party, not only to win the nomination next August, but to move back into the White House in January 2009.
An outcome many thought outlandish two years ago is beginning to look like the conventional wisdom. This has many in the Republican Party anxiously clinging to another truism in politics — conventional wisdom is often wrong.