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Clinton's Biggest Mistake

By Tom Bevan

Coming off her landslide win in West Virginia on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton plods on to the end of the primary season on June 3. But her campaign has already been declared dead by many pundits, and the post mortems on why her campaign failed have already begun.

Most prominent among them, at least thus far, is Karen Tumulty of Time Magazine who in last week's issue recounted Clinton's "five big mistakes, each of which compounded the others."

According to Tumulty those mistakes, in order, were: 1. She misjudged the mood, 2. She didn't master the rules, 3. She underestimated the caucus states, 4. She relied on old money, and 5. She never counted on a long haul.

All of these points are no doubt true, but miss the mark. Clinton's first and biggest mistake, which eventually led to her undoing, can be summed up in a single question: how and why did her campaign miss Obama's association with Reverend Wright?

Put simply, had Reverend Wright been introduced to voters a few days before the Iowa caucuses, odds are Barack Obama would not be a hair's breadth away from clinching the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.

And even if we assume Obama could have managed to hang on and win Iowa after the appearance of his good reverend, which is debatable, it's a near certainty he would not have won as many primaries and caucuses by as many votes around the country as he did in January and February.

In other words, it would be a totally different ballgame.

How did this happen? The easiest answer, which fits nicely with what we know about Clinton's subsequent mistakes, is that the campaign was guilty of laziness brought on by overconfidence and arrogance.

Opposition research is the starting point of every campaign; it is the necessary due diligence candidates must undertake to inform themselves about the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. And the Clinton campaign clearly failed at this basic task.

A prevailing theory of political combat, most recently perfected by Karl Rove, is to focus on your opponent's greatest strength and find a way to turn it into a weakness. From the beginning Obama's strength was his appeal as a post-partisan, post-racial unifier who could bridge America's divides and move the country forward.

And from the beginning there were signs that Obama's long time association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United church ran counter to the image and narrative Obama was crafting for his presidential run.

On February 6, 2007, just days before Obama officially announced his bid for the presidency in front of the old state house in Springfield, Illinois, an article in the Chicago Tribune examined the "black value system" espoused by his South Side church which includes a "disavowal of the pursuit of middleclassness."

The Tribune reported:

On Saturday, Obama is expected to thrust himself into the hothouse atmosphere of presidential campaign politics, where the principles and teachings of Obama's church might require some explanation for, say, some white, middle-class voters in Iowa or New Hampshire. [snip]

Political scientist Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University expert on the party caucuses in his state, said anything perceived as a rejection of the middle class will not sit well with voters. Fair or not, Obama must move quickly to explain the value system and what it means to him or risk having the issue defined by critics, he said.

One month later, on March 6, 2007, the New York Times' Jodi Kantor reported that Obama had asked Reverend Wright to perform the invocation at his official announcement in Springfield but rescinded the invitation the night before, citing inflammatory language from a Wright sermon that had appeared in a February 2007 issue of Rolling Stone. Wright was present in Springfield that day but led the family in a private prayer before the event instead.

Only later did we learn that Reverend Wright's greatest hits were available for sale on the church's web site the entire time.

Despite these numerous clues, Clinton's vaunted political organization - often described with words like "ruthless," "hyper-efficient," "seasoned," and "well-oiled" - completely missed the single most potent weapon against Obama in this race.

Not only did the Clinton campaign fail to offer any pushback against Obama's image as a post racial unifier, as the race dragged on into the winter of 2007 and his poll numbers climbed in advance of Iowa, they served up a montage of ridiculous, ham-handed attacks: a kindergarten essay as proof of Obama's overweening ambition, staffers circulating emails about Obama being a Muslim, prominent surrogates bringing up his past cocaine use and insinuating he may have been a drug dealer.

Not only did these attacks fail to dent Obama's image, they reinforced negative perceptions of the Clinton campaign as willing to do anything to win and boosted Obama's message of "turning the page" from the "politics of the past." Instead of stopping Obama cold in Iowa, they helped him win it.

The rest is history - including all the subsequent mistakes that have led Clinton to what looks like the final few weeks of her campaign. Clinton's path to the nomination was under her campaign's nose the entire time, but they did not see it. The irony is that by missing the opportunity of bringing up Reverend Wright before Iowa and the vast majority of Democrats cast their ballots, Clinton not only doomed her chances of winning the nomination but may have also allowed her party to commit to a nominee with a serious general election flaw.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email:

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