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Clinton: 'Running against the wind'

Howard Fineman explains why Hillary Clinton's campaign struggles predate the rise of rival Barack Obama.
Clinton 2008
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., greets supporters during a campaign stop in Parma, Ohio, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008. Carolyn Kaster / AP
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As Sen. Hillary Clinton pursues an uphill campaign, she faces the harsh reality of four political rules: Timing is everything, no good deed goes unpunished, what goes around comes around, and it’s better to be lucky than good.

Collectively, ironically, and through no fault of her own, these rules may doom her.

How long her quest survives depends in part on what happens in tonight's primary.

She has to win or finish extremely close in Wisconsin.

But even if she does manage to finish close, ten straight losses to Sen. Barack Obama will make winning in Ohio and Texas on March 4 that much more difficult.

And those two states will be her last big chance of the season.

But Clinton faces deeper, more basic challenges of circumstance and history.

It turns out her timing was bad. There was a moment, perhaps a recently as, say, five years ago, when the idea of a woman running for president would have been considered sensationally groundbreaking.

But that moment has passed, and it's only exaggerated by Obama's presence in the race. As a candidate, he offers the even more head-spinning notion of racial equality in the United States.

Seeing a woman in the upper reaches of public office is no longer startling. In Congress, women hold 16 Senate and 74 House seats. Two women have been secretary of state. There are eight female governors across the country.

By contrast, there is only one African-American senator today, and it's Obama.

The only African-American governor is Obama’s friend (and rhetorical inspiration) Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.

Good deeds
Ironically, Clinton and her husband Bill are suffering from the consequences of their own generational idealism.

Let’s give them credit where credit is due. They were leaders of an earnest wing of Baby Boomers in college who really did care about, and really did work for, racial harmony in America.

They both loved and admired Dr. Martin Luther King.

Bill Clinton insisted on reciting long swatches of the civil rights leader's speeches to his Georgetown University housemates. Hillary Clinton described in letters to friends how she threw her books against her dorm room walls in anger after learning of King's assassination in 1968.

Obama was six years old and living in Indonesia when all that that happened.

Now, forty years later after Memphis, the society that King envisioned, and the one that the Clintons advocated for, is closer at hand. And it's because of this that an Obama candidacy is possible.

What goes around
Here is a further irony, one I’m sure is not lost on the Clintons.

Bill Clinton would not have been nominated in 1992 if Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder had run for president. Wilder was the nation's first African-American governor, and by staying out of the race, he allowed Clinton to run as a blue-eyed Southern soul brother.

This identity allowed him to secure black support in the south. And it was these voters who would eventually become Clinton's "base of bases" for the remainder of his career.

But Mrs. Clinton's attempts to keep these voters in the family put the Obama campaign on the offensive.

Whether Obama intended to or not, the senator baited the Clintons when he compared himself to King.

Citing his own inspirational ability before the South Carolina primary, Obama likened his approach to politics to that of John F. Kennedy and King.

He said that without them, the country never would have gone to the moon or passed the Civil Rights Act.

Knowing their own history, their own passion, and the stakes, the Clintons went ballistic.

The former first lady tartly asserted that President Lyndon Johnson was the key to accomplishing both goals --- and the war of words was on.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Now Obama counts on huge African-American support, percentages that even eluded Bill Clinton, the country's so-called "first black president."

Better to be lucky
The last factor is luck. I guess you could argue that Clinton has been smiled on by the political gods. After all, she married a man who wound up being president.

But recent events haven't gone her way.

After Al Gore failed to gain the White House in 2000, Clinton set her sights on the presidency, probably thinking a weak George W. Bush would have been easy pickings.

But then Sept. 11 happened, she voted for the war, and found herself with nowhere to go.

Obama, on the other hand, has had a hearty helping of luck. A monumental pile, in fact.

He made it to the Senate after not one but TWO sex scandals leveled his potential rivals.

He got to run against Alan Keyes, an often bizarre-acting politician who didn’t even live in the state of Illinois.

And as for his war vote, well, he didn't have to make the same choice Clinton did. That's because Obama wasn't elected until two years after the first tanks rolled into Iraq.

Obama has also benefited from the media’s longtime loathing of the Clintons and from the fact that, at 46, he “reads” much younger.

None of this excuses Clinton's faults and mistakes. But give her a break. As Bob Seger sang long ago, she is running against the wind. I’m sure the Clintons remember the song.