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Nixon 1968, Clinton 2008

By John Ellis

Not so long ago, electability was a one-way ticket to presidential primary election oblivion. The road was littered with "most electable" candidates. Their names were Scranton and Romney, Muskie and Humphrey, Bayh and Connally; to mention but a few.

Today, electability is perhaps the most salient issue for presidential primary voters. It's the issue that catapulted Sen. John Kerry to the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. It's the issue that keeps afloat the 2008 Giuliani for President Campaign. In an age of highly polarized, hyper-alert politics, who can win in November matters a great deal.

Every time Sen. Hillary Clinton goes a bit wobbly, her chief strategist, Mark Penn, issues a memo which says, basically, not only is she electable, she's inevitable. And here are 8,000 pieces of poll data that prove the point. Mr. Penn did just that last week, in the run-up to the Nevada debate, after Sen. Clinton had fish-tailed through an icy patch. There aren't ten people in the United States who know more about what primary election voters consider salient than Mark Penn. So it's illustrative indeed that his counter-argument to the slightest sign of trouble is: she's inevitable, stop whining and shut up.

The question is: is inevitability a sustainable strategy for Sen. Clinton? Assume for the moment that over the course of the next six or seven weeks, Barack Obama separates himself from John Edwards in Iowa and becomes the only "viable" alternative to Sen. Clinton for Iowa caucus goers. If that happens, Sen. Obama will win Iowa by a reasonable, perhaps comfortable margin, depending on turnout (Clinton needs an historically high turnout to win Iowa, which is why she has suddenly flooded the state with organizers and operatives).

Sen. Obama will then head into New Hampshire riding a wave of favorable publicity (he's a winner, she's in trouble) and with a newly fortified campaign treasury (money hedges in politics, just as it does on Wall Street). Sen. Clinton's campaign will have to turn harshly negative, to slow down Sen. Obama's momentum and heighten voter concerns about his experience.

Let's further say it doesn't work and Sen. Obama wins New Hampshire. How does Senator Clinton then argue that she's the most elect-able, that she is in fact inevitable, when she's just lost two in a row and there are only three weeks left? This is the flaw in the Clinton campaign's strategy. If she is perceived to have lost two in a row by too much, the rationale for her campaign's continuance collapses.

All good strategies have an antecedent. The antecedent strategy for the Clinton campaign of 2008 is the Nixon strategy of 1968. Then, the problem was: how do you make the country's most disliked politician electable? Frank Shakespeare and Fred McWhorter started by trying to make Nixon warmer, friendlier, your next door neighbor. A young turk named Roger Ailes came in, took a look and said (and I am paraphrasing here): "forget it. No one will ever warm to the guy. He's un-likeable. We've got to change the narrative. This is about a man in the arena; this is about grit and determination and hard work and brains and perseverance." Ailes went on to create televised "Man in the Arena" town hall meetings, at which Nixon answered voter questions, by himself, being himself. Voters didn't need to like Nixon to elect him. He only needed to earn their respect.

Like Nixon, Senator Clinton is widely disliked. Like Nixon, she cannot be made warm, even by a modern-day Roger Ailes. Like Nixon, she is a politician whose resentments are always close to the surface. And like Nixon, she is a politician about whom her peers have real doubts.

But also like Nixon, she is intelligent and diligent and determined and tough and she has been through hell and back. She is experienced in a way that only her husband and President George W. Bush are experienced. She knows what it's like to get her head kicked in every day, day after day after day, for months and years on end. She endures.

That was the whole point of the 1968 Nixon campaign narrative. He wasn't perfect by any means, but he was formidable and he endured. It's a narrative that fits Senator Clinton's campaign like a glove. For reasons either right or wrong, Americans will elect their first female president only when they are convinced that she is the tougher of the two (or three) choices. She won't be inevitable until we believe she is as formidable as Tricky Dick.

John Ellis is a contributing columnist to RealClearPolitics. In his day job, he’s a partner at Kerr Creek Partners, a venture capital firm.

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