Hillary Clinton is playing a hand dealt by Obama. And the dealer peeked.
Actually, he did more than peek. He laid out all the cards face up and selected the aces for himself. Aces like hope, freshness, change, and unity.
To Hillary he sent deuces and tres like competence, hard work, reliability and experience.
And now she's cornered. It's clear she's made the decision to play her hand to the hilt, raising the ante round by round. But if she thinks this can work, her naivete is stunning. And isn't Hillary supposed to be the shrewd one?
She should have cried foul the moment he took out the cards and with feathery touch sent them acrobatically arcing from one hand to the other. At the very least, she should have fought for a new deal like it was a matter of survival. Because it was.
Now it's too late. She has a losing hand. And the harder she plays it, the bigger she will lose.
Granted, Hillary entered the game confronting some intrinsic challenges. One is that she's a woman. There are those who would argue that this creates an unfair and impossible obstacle for her. How can any woman display the toughness that makes a credible Commander in Chief without also being pegged as an abrasive shrew?
Before long, a woman will come along who is equipped to use her gender as a point of strength. A woman who taps naturally into all the positive feelings people have towards the powerful and influential women in their lives. Voters will defend this woman when she's attacked as if their own sister were under assault. And they will bend to her will to avoid disappointing her, out of an almost holy respect, as they do for their mothers. Such a woman will come along, but it appears her name will not be Hillary Clinton. Except in a case of monumental coincidence.
You may lament the superficiality of a politics that elevates personality and carriage to a par with policy. But as well to rue inconvenient realities like the need for sleep or ear wax build-up. These things aren't going away either.
And while women have a bigger hill to climb in presidential politics—at least until someone breaks the glass ceiling—gender expectations cut both ways. Dennis Kucinich can never be President. He's short. And those ears! Even his wife, ravishing as she is, cannot restore him to manhood.
So Obama and Clinton are competing for the voters' affections each against a different set of gender expectations, like apples and oranges. But only one of them can be the winner, and Obama is proving that people like his orange more than Clinton's apple.
Some—you?—may find Clinton to be more personally compelling than Obama. You see in her a commanding presence, evoking warmth, loyalty and a host of protective instincts. But if so, you are incontrovertibly in the minority. In a race in which the policy differences between the two candidates are barely discernible, the wave of enthusiasm that is carrying Obama can only be attributed to the impact of his style and personality. It isn't just minorities that gravitate to him. It isn't just men. It isn't just Democrats. His support cuts across virtually every demographic except the sourest of dead-end conservatives. People like him more than Clinton.
She was slow to grasp both the fact and the significance of this. Perhaps she smugly believed Obama's expansive style would be his own downfall, that America had learned its lesson about selecting Presidents for their likeability. Given the experience of the last eight years, we might have come to believe that anyone we like enough to elect president must also be utterly incapable of doing the job. We might have forgotten that a winning personality does not preclude intelligence, and in fact what a powerful aid personal magnetism can be in the pursuit of well-considered goals.
Even if the Clinton team recognized early in the race that Obama was winning hearts, they can hardly be blamed for sitting pat as the candidate for the head. If the utilitarian fluorescence of her personality seems pale in comparison to the radiant aura generated by her competitor, what could she hope to do about it over the course of a few short months, if ever? Politicians make required mechanical adjustments when their pollsters identify negative responses to their bearing or facial expressions. Acting differently is mere stagecraft. But being different is a much taller order. Witness the plasticine smile that John McCain's advisers have hot-glued to his face in recent weeks. We'll see how that works out. The electorate may go slack and numb when confronted with even a glimpse of tax policy detail, but they can spot a phony in a second.
So Clinton stuck to her plan and waited for the Obama brush fire to show itself no more than a flash-in-the-pan.
But she underestimated both the staying power of Obama's talents and America's hunger for inspirational leadership. A preponderance of the electorate has recognized—consciously or not—the staggering scope of the challenges ahead. When in the memory of the living have so many explosive issues—the economy, international relations, energy security, global warming, immigration, terrorism—come to critical mass at the same time? For many years our leaders have denied, ignored, or obfuscated these difficulties. We've pulled the blankets over our head and in the suffocating dark shouted slogans of pride, courage and belligerence. But now we are gathering ourselves to face the onslaught. It's not bravery. It's an involuntary reaction. We are turning to face the wave just before it hits. And we are scared to death.
There is a profound emotional vulnerability that accompanies such an imminent trial. Clinton might argue that this moment should put experience, reliability, and familiarity at a premium. Indeed, those are great qualities to lean on when you spot the storm ahead. And they will be needed when we're tossing in high seas as well. But here, as we stare up into the yawning belly of a breaking mountain of water, what people want is courage. Someone who makes them feel rather than think. Any more prosaic narrative becomes an irritating distraction.
All this was manifest, if still partially obscured, right after the Iowa primary. That's when Obama slid the cards towards her and asked her to cut the deck. Clinton hesitated, her campaign paralyzed by the shock of that first blow. Had she gotten up from the table, insisted they play a different game, there might still have been time to alter the dynamic of the race. But confident in her game plan and her formidable tactical strengths, she took the bait. She hammered on her experience and her competence. She leveraged warm memories of the Clinton years and let her husband share the spotlight. She strode into the Augean stables of policy minutia and valorously wielded her shovel. She misread her victory in tiny New Hampshire as a validation of her strategy.
She was snookered.
Now it is obvious that all the thematic terrain she so triumphantly occupied was willingly ceded by Obama in a tactical retreat. What appeared to be a shining prize when viewed from afar—to command the territory of experience and workmanlike capability—turns out to be dreary and lackluster. Any mid-level brand manager would identify her positioning as catastrophic. The harder she fights, the deeper into quicksand she sinks, building Obama up in the process. If she paints herself the worker, he appears the leader. If she is the manager, he becomes the executive. If she is a return to a safer past, he becomes a pioneer into the future. He owns all the high ground, and he will easily reoccupy her territory after she packs up and goes home.
And in a crowning irony, her struggle for viability compels her to co-opt some of the most distasteful Republican talking points. She is playing the fear card, raising the spectre of the disaster that will ensue if we put an untested Commander in Chief in the White House. It's a cry that might serve to shave a percentage point of voters her way in a tight race, but it will never be heard above the roar of pounding feet as the mob rushes to Obama's banner.
With that play trumped, she is driven to go negative and attempt to sow doubt about the lesser man beneath the soaring rhetoric. Such a blatant appeal to cynicism certainly serves to clarify the stylistic gulf between the candidates. But not to her advantage.
Still, what other cards can she play at this point? If she had locked Bill in a closet in mid-January and remade her message from scratch, everyone would have thought her mad, but she might have a chance in the fight now. Instead she took the safe and ostensibly smart route. Since then she's been outfoxed, out-maneuvered, out-positioned, and just plain whupped. Now, the old expression about playing the hand you're dealt is the only one that applies.
And on March 5th, she will have no choice but to fold.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Hillary Clinton is playing a hand dealt by Obama. And the dealer peeked.