- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Remember when Hillary Clinton was “inevitable?” That’s so last year. Just ask her husband.

“I think she has been the underdog ever since Iowa,” former President Bill Clinton said in an interview with Washington’s WMAL radio during last Tuesday’s Potomac Primary. “Underdog?” If that’s not enough to make you blow your coffee through your nose, read on.

“She’s had, you know, a lot of the politicians, like Sen. [Edward] Kennedy [of Massachusetts], opposed to her,” Mr. Clinton continued. “The political press has avowedly played a role in this election. I’ve never seen this before.”

Gee, I don’t remember many complaints about the press last fall when media were touting the New York senator’s “inevitability.” She was marching through the debates, deflecting her opponents with ease and confidence. Democratic bigwigs, including several Kennedys, clamored to stand by her side and fill her campaign coffers.

Yet the former president spoke as if he was back in the grass-roots insurgency he and his wife brought to the campaign trail in 1992. “We’ve gotten plenty of delegates on a shoestring,” he said. He didn’t mention that his wife’s campaign has raised and burned through more than $140 million so far. That’s a lot of shoestring, even in Washington.

Her husband’s transformation of Sen. Clinton into an “underdog” follows an equally bizarre effort a week earlier to rebrand Sen. Barack Obama with a new label: the “establishment” candidate.

A day after the Democrats’ Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses on Feb. 5, her chief strategist, Mark Penn, told reporters, “We went through 10 days of wall-to-wall coverage of Sen. Obama and his establishment campaign, of big endorsements, money, ads on the Super Bowl, and Hillary Clinton again bounced back.”

Remember, Mrs. Clinton won the largest states on Super Tuesday and collected slightly more delegates than Mr. Obama. (He moved slightly ahead in the delegate count a week later.) Yet even she dropped the E-word afterward to describe Mr. Obama, as if she, not he, is the maverick outsider.

“Well, he sure had a lot of establishment support yesterday,” she said, “and I feel very good about the results.”

So should Mr. Obama. After months of condescending hints that he’s too young and too green to know the ropes of political hardball, he suddenly found himself promoted in the eyes of his opponents into a bulwark of the “establishment.”

The truth seems far more ominous for the Clinton campaign. Like the Bush administration after toppling Saddam Hussein, Team Clinton appears to have had no Plan B for a campaign that, it turns out, was not wrapped up by Super Tuesday, as many thought it might be.

Instead, she now turns to the big-state primaries in Ohio and Texas, which it appears she must win in March if her campaign is to survive.

Meanwhile, the amazing Obama train gathers more steam. It looks quite likely neither candidate will win enough delegates to clinch their party’s nomination when the state primaries and caucuses end.

That throws the decision into the hands of the party’s unpledged “superdelegates.” Their ranks, despite Mrs. Clinton’s expressions to the contrary, are filled with many old Friends of Bill and Hill. But they’re also coming under heavy pressure from other Democrats to avoid overruling the popular will of Democratic primary voters and caucus-goers.

What is Hillary Clinton to do? Her first moves have been obvious: Change the team and change the conversation. She has shaken up her campaign staff. She has tried to shift attention from her charisma gap with Mr. Obama and onto what she calls a lack of specifics about his plans and programs. That sounds like something her campaign picked up in focus group discussions from uncommitted voters who have not paid much attention.

In this Internet age, voters can easily find specifics on the candidates’ Web sites and in the debates, especially now that only two candidates are facing off. But if you want to move voters off the couch and into the voting booths, I think you need more than a change in your team and your themes. You also need a compelling narrative about yourself and the direction in which you plan to take the country.

When that has been suggested to her in public meetings, she has pointed out that, for starters, putting a woman in the Oval Office will be a very big change. That’s true. But it might not be enough. After her New Hampshire victory, she thanked voters for helping her to find her voice. She may need to find it again.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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