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What the heck happened to Hillary?

On Elm Street Monday morning in Manchester, N.H., there were scores of young people lining the sidewalks waving Obama signs. So what happened to Hillary?
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On Elm Street this morning, there were scores of young people lining the sidewalks waving signs at passing motorists.

All the kids and all the signs were for one candidate: Sen. Barack Obama.

Maybe it’s too early to ask, but I am going to anyway... What the heck happened to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton?

Nearly a month ago in this column I wrote that Hillary’s campaign was “teetering on the brink.” Still, I didn’t think the free fall would be this dramatic and potentially irreversible. Maybe she can pull it out, but I tend to doubt it at this point.

The saving, cautionary analogy is the near-death campaign of Walter Mondale, who survived Gary Hart’s charge in 1984. But politics doesn’t work the same way it did in those days.

The unions who saved Mondale have far less clout; the internet has and will give Obama far more resources than Hillary; and Hart – a praiseworthy figure (one of the brightest strategic minds the Democrats have ever had) – wasn’t exactly a user-friendly campaigner. He certainly was no Obama. Also, the national media of the day turned on Hart; they are unlikely to do the same to Obama.

Much of Hillary’s travail is her fault, but some of it is just bad luck and bad timing – not to mention the presence of two skilled foes in Obama and former Sen. John Edwards.

Here is my short list of reasons for her travails:

  • Hiring the topmost insiders
    Hillary underestimated the hunger for change outside the Beltway. Nothing proved that more than the professionals she chose to run her campaign. They were brilliant, but had grown wealthy in their work and perhaps had lost a fingertip feel for the urgency and everyday fear that grips most of middle-class America these days.
  • Running on experienceThe fact is, she doesn’t really have that much experience that is truly hands-on as an official. It was too easy for her opponents to question its validity.
  • Ignoring ObamaIn some ways, Obama isn’t quite the outsider and systematic change agent that he claims to be. Yes he is an African-American who now calls the South Side of Chicago home – and that will always make him an outsider to some extent. In many other ways, however, he is just a new wave of what Bill and Hillary were years ago – an on-the-make, Ivy League-educated, Democratic lawyer eager to seize power in Washington. If Hillary was going to say that, she needed to have done it months ago. She did not.
  • Waiting too long to get specificThe Clintonistas held a conference call yesterday to point out some relevant things: that Obama’s New Hampshire co-chair was a drug-company lobbyist; that the senator had vehemently opposed the Iraq war but then voted repeatedly to fund it; that he had said he wanted to scrap the Patriot Act and start over, but then voted for it. As I listened to the conference call, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why the Clinton folks didn’t highlight these and other items much earlier. By the time they did so, it was too late. You can’t do things by half in politics; if you are going to go after an opponent you have to do it with gusto.
  • Dealing with an antagonistic mediaHillary and her inner circle come by their loathing of the media honestly, I suppose. After all, she has spent much of her career waiting for journalistic shoes to drop. But that is no reason to have adopted a distant, hermetically-sealed media strategy for the campaign. It was counterproductively control-freakish. She knew she was going to be treated poorly by the national media – and in many ways she has been – but the answer was not to make that a self-fulfilling prophesy. As others have said many times, she can be utterly charming and convincing in small groups. Why didn’t she at least try a charm offensive at some point?
  • The Iran voteWhoever advised Hillary to try to burnish her commander-in-chief credentials by voting to declare the Iranian Army a terrorist organization did her a deep disservice. It cost her dearly, by giving Obama a way to outflank her despite his votes for funding the war in Iraq. The fact that Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd voted against it made her vote all the more vivid, and damaging.
  • The kickoff slogan“I’m in it to win it,” in retrospect, said way too much about the mentality of the campaign. It didn’t seem to be about the American people, but about her and her coterie of well-placed acolytes inside the Beltway.
  • Focusing on womenSenior strategist Mark Penn bragged repeatedly months ago about how Hillary had a solid, unassailable base among women – and a core that, if all else failed, would guarantee her the nomination. Three things wrong with that. For one, it made her sound like a for-women-only crusader (no way to attract men). Second, it violated the strategist principle used shrewdly by another top aide, Mandy Grunwald, in designing Hillary’s first run for the Senate in New York in 2000. In that race, Hillary focused on her weakest spot, upstate New York, and turned it into a positive. She should have done the same thing demographically, as opposed to geographically, this time around. Third is perhaps the result of the other two – she didn’t even win the female vote in Iowa.

  • BillHaving seen him on the trail (not to mention on “Charlie Rose,”) I think the former president is a net positive for his wife. It’s not his fault that no one else in the campaign had tried aggressively to call Obama to account. He had to do it. He also summarized her resume better than she herself did. But the visibility of her husband allowed Obama and Edwards to more easily outflank her on the “change” issue. It seems that the country really has had enough after 28 years of Bushes and Clintons.
  • Edwards and Obama gangupThey did it here in New Hampshire at the ABC debate. Hillary got angry. She had reason to be. She had a right to respond aggressively to both of them. Edwards’ patients’ bill of rights never did pass; Obama indeed has talked out of both sides of his Cheshire-cat-grin mouth from time to time. But the sight of Hillary – back up and eyes flashing – did not help.
  • Missing the waveFor many Baby Boomer women it is infuriating to watch Hillary, who would be the first female president, be outflanked by Obama on the “making history” theme. Had she run five years earlier, it would have been a more sensational thing. But she seems to have missed by half a wave. There is a bigger story now, or at least there seems to be here in New Hampshire.