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« NJ: Lautenberg +7 | Blog Home Page | Strategy Memo: Yes, Virginia »

What Clinton's Crash Can Teach Us

It is simplistic to say that Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign was done in simply by constant in-fighting and egos that could fill the Beltway. In a broad look at the rise and fall of the most inevitable and anticipated campaign in modern history, Joshua Green's research shows the campaign's strategies could have worked, if only the pieces fell into place. But to manage a campaign the size of a small Fortune 500 company is a feat in itself, a feat only made more difficult when ego gets in the way.

In his sweeping look at the campaign, The Atlantic's Green parsed internal emails and strategy memos to find out exactly what went wrong. As future candidates on both sides of the aisle prepare to mount bids for the highest office in the land, the failed campaign of Hillary Clinton offers all several important lessons by which to live.

1) Who's the boss? Mark Penn, Harold Ickes, Mandy Grunwald and Howard Wolfson lunged at each others' necks as often as possible, swearing at each other on conference calls and leaking rumors that one or the other was moments from being sent packing. At critical times, it was Clinton who stepped in to stop the fighting, and to give the marching orders.

On a political campaign, any number of advisers can offer strategy, claim credit and try to avoid blame. But the person in charge is the candidate him- or herself. When required, Clinton forced action, and it often served her campaign well. The problem was that by the time it was required, action was often too late. Staff also has to learn a lesson: They're there to elect the candidate first. When the campaign wins, everyone gets at least some credit. When it loses, everyone gets at least some blame.

2) Watch Out For The Icarus Effect. As Barack Obama begins to get criticism for his supposed hubris, the Icarus analogy -- comparing the candidate to the Greek figure who flew too close to the sun with wings held together by wax -- has cropped up with increasing frequency. Clinton, though, got there first. At one point polling above 50% among the primary electorate (No candidate who reached the halfway mark had ever lost a nomination), Clinton's slipping support gave rise to a new round of stories questioning whether she might lose.

Clinton's strategists believed John Edwards or Barack Obama could have survived losing Iowa or New Hampshire. It was their candidate, they thought, who would be most damaged by a loss. With the aura of inevitability comes the pressure of expected perfection; one loss, and Clinton the Powerful was Clinton the Mortal. If any future campaign has the choice to claim the front-runner mantle, the lesson from the Clinton campaign is clear: Run away, and no matter one's position in the polls, claim the underdog role. It was a lesson the campaign learned too late; by the end of the primaries, both Clinton and Obama were claiming to be racing to catch up.

3) Identity politics. Chief strategist Penn wrote early in the campaign that race would not be a factor. He was wrong, as African American voters first in South Carolina and then around the country demonstrated. But Clinton always had her own identity problems, to the point of what Green calls "paralyzing schizophrenia." Is she the tough fighter hell-bent against apologizing for her vote on the war in Iraq, or the sympathetic figure who wants invisible Americans to be heard?

John McCain won the primary as John McCain (Though arguably the Arizona senator veered right after securing the nod). Few Americans knew Barack Obama, allowing him to define his own personage to primary voters (Something he is struggling to do now with general election voters). But everyone knew Hillary Clinton, and early polls showed most voters in Iowa thought she was the best potential leader, the strongest and most experienced candidate; they just didn't like her.

Instead of being one thing to one set of voters and another to those in a different state, Clinton should have, like the other two, stuck with a theme throughout. Her successful appeals to working class voters in the final contests, from Ohio to Texas to Pennsylvania and others, was the right strategy aimed at the right slice of the electorate. It just didn't come soon enough.

4) Plan for the worst, hope for the best. Perhaps the biggest cause of Clinton's stunning collapse came as the campaign realized that, after Iowa, it was out of money. Clinton raised more than $100 million through 2007, but had blown through virtually all of it after Iowa Democrats caucused. Harold Ickes, the long-time party stalwart who single-handedly fought a losing campaign of his own to get other Clintonites to pay attention to delegate selection rules, also argued for a significant $25 million reserve fund. Neither of Ickes' warnings were heeded, and instead the campaign spent so freely in advance of what it saw as the February 5 end date -- another prediction that didn't turn out right.

John Kerry was lambasted in 2004 for retaining millions in his campaign account after losing a narrow election to President Bush. And Clinton, to her campaign's credit, won just about every contest the media dubbed crucial to her campaign -- from New Hampshire to California to Ohio and on to Indiana, though never taking a big enough majority of delegates to blunt Obama's early lead. But for a campaign based on firewalls, they had remarkably few resources with which to back them up.

The lesson any future strategist has to recall from the Clinton campaign's broken finances, then, is to spend every nickel one has to, and keep something in the tank for a last stand. For Kerry, that last stand was Election Day. Clinton's tactical mistake was assuming her last stand would be February 5. And while the Obama campaign long planned a delegate fight that could last to June, Ickes' delegate selection warnings went unheeded.

Clinton claimed more votes than anyone in Democratic primary history. But that's as good as Al Gore having won the popular vote. Ickes knew the fight wasn't over popular votes, just like any kid who's taken civics knows the general election isn't about the popular vote. In the primary, the race is for delegates. In the general, the race is for electoral votes.

5) Call 'em like you see 'em. The media has slipped into Obama-mania several times during the campaign, to the point at which every other candidate has complained. Sometimes, the media even takes note, engages in some serious omphaloskepsis and reassesses its approach to the Illinois Senator. That has produced the likely Democratic nominee's most memorably difficult weeks on the campaign trail.

McCain's campaign is the most recent to have successfully goaded the media into taking another look at Obama. The fawning press coverage of the Democrat's overseas trip, followed by a McCain attack ad equating Obama with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears turned into a new storyline that Obama has become too much of a celebrity. Clinton's campaign, with the help of a late February Saturday Night Live skit, caused a similar re-evaluation and similar bad press for Obama a week before his March 4 defeats in Ohio and Texas.

Both times, McCain and Clinton were hammered for their purported negativity and whining. But both times, what the opinion writers said turned into incorrect conventional wisdom. Faced with a candidate who gets overwhelming positive press in the future, a rival should not be shy about complaining, but, like Clinton and McCain, in a somewhat humorous way.

Clinton's slow, steady, decade and a half-long rise to the top of Democratic politics was punctuated by a decline that took just over a month. It won't save Hillary's political future, but strategists might salvage information from that crash in order to prevent something similar from happening to them.