CAMPAIGN OUTSIDER Mud flies, Clinton wins
By Muhammad Cohen
HONG KONG - America had its chance to anoint Barack Obama as the Democratic
presidential nominee on Tuesday, and America blinked. Possibly because of all
the mud Hillary Clinton's campaign flung in its eyes.
With Clinton's victories in Ohio and Rhode Island and her close win in the
Texas primary - the New York senator called it a comeback despite holding
20-point leads in both states last month - she stopped bleeding in her formerly
"inevitable" drive for the Democratic presidential nomination. But the results
still leave Obama ahead in the delegate count, meaning the race will continue
through Wyoming this weekend, Mississippi next week, and to Pennsylvania on
The only thing decided on Tuesday is that Senator John McCain will be the
Republican nominee. His wins in Texas, Rhode Island, Vermont and Ohio put him
over the top in pledged delegates. McCain's last major rival, former Arkansas
Huckabee, abandoned his quest. So McCain can now turn his attention to uniting
the Republicans, bashing the Democrats, and raising money to do it. After
getting President George W Bush's endorsement on Wednesday, McCain will slip
into the background, while the Democrats continue their center-stage wrestling
Phoenix rising McCain's candidacy was declared dead on arrival ahead of the primary
season. It was out of money and seemed out of ideas. The Arizona senator's
comeback should give heart to Clinton's campaign, wobbling after 11 straight
nomination contests. That became 12 straight as Obama took Vermont early on
After claiming for weeks that Ohio and Texas were crucial to Clinton's hope of
winning the nomination - while Clinton held her double-digit leads - her
campaign tried to move the goalposts last Friday. The people who brought us
Hillary the Inevitable and guided her losing streak declared that
now-presumptive nominee Obama needed to win all four contests or it would
indicate the Democrats didn't really want him.
In other words, winning three out of four would signal rejection of the
Illinois senator and, thus, victory for Clinton. Nice math if you can get it.
In reality, Clinton didn't need new math on Tuesday night. Obama's lead in the
nomination race was never as big as winning 11 straight made it seem. Clinton's
losing streak still left her within hailing distance of Obama, thanks to the
Democrats' aversion to winner-take-all (and is some cases, winner-take-most)
contests. Clinton's successes on Tuesday still don't significantly change the
math of the campaign, but they will likely change the tone.
A lively but civil primary contest that continues into April can be good for
Democrats, energizing party faithful and engaging the apathetic majority. But a
negative campaign will leave the loser's side bitter, independents disgusted,
and, most likely, a Republican in the White House.
NAFTAgate? In Ohio, Clinton got a major boost from an Obama gaffe about an
advisor's meeting at the Canadian consulate in Chicago. A leaked memo suggested
Obama's opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was
insincere. Obama first denied the meeting took place, giving the story legs.
Then he had to explain the meeting, defend his advisor, and explain where he
stands on trade.
Ohio is a rustbelt state where the economy is the key issue, and NAFTA is seen
as having cost thousands of industrial jobs. Yet in what could have another of
its legendary miscalculations, the Clinton campaign made national security the
focus for this potential last stand.
Clinton's "It's 3 am ... " spot, proposing that Clinton would best protect your
children in their beds in a national security emergency, wasn't original as an
advertising concept. It was just another attempt to repackage Clinton's losing
message about experience. The Obama campaign's rapid response, highlighting
Clinton's Iraq vote, showed just how much better it's become at the campaign
game than Clinton's team. But it did betray a whiff of arrogance that may haunt
it later. Nevertheless, the ad seems to have worked, since voters who decided
in the final days went for Clinton.
Taking the longer focus, the guy who should have made an ad responding to
Clinton is John McCain. It's another indictment of the Clinton campaign that it
would make an ad guaranteed to be used against the Democratic nominee in the
autumn. The Clinton campaign apparently thinks it can beat a heavily decorated
navy flier and 20-year Senate Armed Services Committee veteran on national
security. Clinton mentioned the 3am phone call again in her victory speech in
Ohio on Tuesday night; McCain should send her a check every time she does that.
The ad's message, that Clinton has the cojones to face down the world's
bad guys, also doesn't jibe with her history. Clinton's chief strategist Mark
Penn couldn't name an actual crisis moment Clinton had ever faced. Moreover, it
doesn't fit her behavior over the past two weeks.
'Which Hillary are you calling for?' Less than 72 hours after being "honored ... honored ... honored" to
compete with Obama, Clinton ranted, "Shame on you, Barack Obama ... Meet me in
Ohio. Let's have a debate on your tactics and your campaign." Fast forward 72
hours, and they did have a debate. Face-to-face with Obama, Clinton blinked.
She didn't face down Obama, didn't seize that opportunity to throttle him.
Instead she sat there, the only remnants of Clinton's anger her gritted teeth
and whines about unfair treatment. Offstage, her campaign went negative with
the 3 am ad. So at 3 am who will answer the hotline? Will it be the "shame on
you" Hillary? Or, "Come on, premier, why do I always get the first missile?"
Griping about the media got traction because the media loves to cover few
topics as much as itself. Becoming part of the story, making news rather than
just reporting it, is the stuff of newsroom wet dreams. Losers habitually
complain about media coverage; the Clinton team probably will like Wednesday's
coverage. Claims the press hates Clinton, if true, are symptomatic of a wider
issue: a lot of folks don't like Hillary.
Griping about the press fit in with boohooing from feminists about
victimization. According to feminists, Clinton was experiencing what often
happens to women in the workplace: they do the heavy lifting behind the scenes
and lose out to a younger (better looking) guy. They've also argued that if a
woman with Hillary Clinton's credentials can't be elected president, then what
But what exactly are those credentials? She's been in the Senate for seven
years, she's been the wife of the president, she's been an attorney at a
non-profit, and then a corporate lawyer in the state capital where her husband
was governor. When there's a female candidate with the resume of former Texas
governor Ann Richards or even Diane Feinstein, San Francisco's mayor in the
1980s, and a multi-term senator, then women will have stronger argument about
No sex, please The main problem for Clinton isn't her gender, it's her personality.
Reports emerged of tension in the campaign between chief strategist Penn,
pushing the experience line, and other advisors hoping to boost Clinton's
likability. But the kinder, gentler Hillary has remained mainly in mothballs
throughout the campaign.
Stuck with a candidate nobody likes, the Clinton campaign went negative. It
challenged his readiness to be president. It attacked Obama for his connection
to Tony Rezko, a former fundraiser whose corruption trial just got underway. It
challenged Obama's sincerity on NAFTA. These attacks gave the Clinton team
control of the agenda. It's the sort of inside game, as opposed to directly
appealing to voters, that's been the Clinton team's focus throughout the
Going negative appears to have worked for Clinton, so we're likely to see
plenty more of it. Clinton herself said that McCain was more qualified to be
commander in chief than Obama. That's sure to show up in Republican speeches
and ads during the general election campaign.
The Clinton campaign, which has failed at everything else, prefers to play in
the mud anyway. Tuesday's results mean plenty more filth will fly, and a
battered Democratic nominee will face McCain in November. You can bet that
there's a Clinton staffer desperately searching for a picture of Obama and
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. If that staffer is as ambitious as
Clinton, they've already got their PhotoShop program loaded.
The great irony is that if Clinton gets the nomination by taking a hatchet to
Obama, the only way to bring the party together and repair the damage will be
to summon the bleeding Obama as her running mate.
"This ticket will self-destruct in five seconds," the recording ends, in a puff
Former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen told America's
story to the world as a US diplomat and is author of
Hong Kong On Air (www.hongkongonair.com),
a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal,
high finance and cheap lingerie.