What undid Hillary Clinton
On Wednesday afternoon, Hillary Rodham Clinton visited her Arlington, Va., campaign headquarters and disclosed that she would finally concede her long primary fight. That same afternoon, a fierce storm system developed over northern Virginia and unleashed a tempest of high winds, driving rain and even a tornado. The heavenly outburst was a fittingly symbolic expression of the anger and frustration that defined the last days of a candidate who once seemed to have a lock on the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
It was also fitting that Clinton decided to fold her cards in Arlington, just across the Potomac River from Washington. Of the many possible culprits -- gender, tactical blunders, a hostile media -- behind her defeat at the hands of a previously unknown first-term senator from Illinois, the biggest may be geographical. Clinton was, more than anything else, a victim of Washington. The inside-Washington mentality that shaped her campaign from the start proved to be its undoing.
To understand this, flash back to the early 1990s. Bill and Hillary Clinton, like Barack Obama today, first ran against Washington, promising to shake up and reform the city’s insular political system. Receiving these irreverent young Arkansans with suspicion, the capital’s mandarins warned them to learn the ropes quick. “Washington has its own totems and taboos,” the Georgetown hostess and former Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn wrote. “You have to run against ‘inside Washington’ to get in, and you have to become ‘inside Washington’ to stay in.”
The Clintons had trouble heeding this advice at first, as Bill’s presidency opened with a flurry of ham-handed screw-ups, from a string of bungled nominations to an accidental political war over gays in the military. Hillary’s healthcare reform plan was the biggest disaster -- not least because she and Bill poorly managed Congress, the interest groups and the media.
Eventually, the Clintons found their footing. Bill learned to handle Capitol Hill. Hillary smoothed her abrasive public image. And although the impeachment saga nearly destroyed them, it also gave the Clintons a PhD in how scandal, the media and partisan politics interact.
By the time she began running for president in 2006, Hillary Clinton had heeded Quinn’s advice to “become inside Washington.” From her new perch as a senator, she mastered the Washington political game. She assiduously cultivated the city’s most impressive team of operatives, policy wonks and fundraisers. She even helped to create a think tank (the Center for American Politics) and a media-watchdog website (MediaMatters.org). Her communications staff was notorious for its hardball tactics, yet it had a sophisticated understanding of modern media. Clinton’s aides even cultivated a sub rosa relationship with the Internet gossip maven Matt Drudge, who first revealed the Monica Lewinsky affair.
With the help of her savvy Washington team, Clinton also carefully shaped her political image according to clever Beltway rules. She softened her partisan edges by cooperating with hard-core Republicans such as Tom DeLay, then the House majority leader. She took symbolic stands designed to appeal to moderate voters, like her support for a ban on flag burning.
Most fatefully, Clinton backed the Senate’s 2002 Iraq war resolution. At the time, Washington wisdom held that no future Democratic presidential candidate could afford to oppose using force against Saddam Hussein. Top Democratic strategists -- especially Clinton’s pollster and strategy guru, Mark Penn -- argued vehemently after 9/11 that Democrats had to appear “strong” on national security or be steamrolled by jingoistic Republicans. Although there’s some evidence that Clinton may have supported the war resolution on principle, there’s little question that politics made the vote easier for her and that many voters saw her as having acted out of political calculation, which helped set up Clinton to be criticized as forever calculating.
That momentous vote on Oct. 11, 2002, would set the tone for the entire Democratic primary campaign. It was Obama’s opposition to the war in the fall of 2002 that enabled him to mount a credible challenge against Clinton in the first place. With the campaign ready to begin in earnest in late 2006, the Democratic field lacked a credible candidate who could claim to have seen the Iraq disaster coming. This was Obama’s opening, his initial rationale for running.
Obama skillfully used the Iraq war to make a larger, devastating case about how Washington does business. His core themes of hope, change and judgment all flowed from the catastrophic war the Washington establishment had initiated. And Obama turned Clinton into the living representation of that establishment and its myopic vision. This was hardly a novel approach: Indeed, Obama’s campaign had many echoes of Bill Clinton’s run against George H.W. Bush, making it all the more remarkable that Hillary failed to anticipate its strength.
Cloistered Washington thinking undermined Clinton in other ways. Take fundraising. The Clintons rose to power in the 1990s, an era of unlimited “soft money” contributions that required the endless courting of super-rich mega-donors. This was another Washington-based game that the Clintons perfected (all too well, as evidenced by those White House coffees and Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers). But new campaign finance laws and the rise of online contributions have since redirected the flow of political money in ways Clinton’s team failed to recognize. After an initial fundraising tear, Clinton found that many of her big donors had “maxed out” by reaching the legal contribution limit, while Obama was still reeling in small online donations from across the country. He would outspend her by tens of millions of dollars in the campaign’s late stages.
More significantly, Clinton’s advisors appeared to lose touch with the public mood beyond the Beltway. As a top advisor to Bill Clinton’s White House, Penn styled himself as an expert in “micro-trends,” boasting the ability to target hundreds of narrow demographic niches, hitting them with political messages guided like smart bombs. This model worked during the relatively placid 1990s. But Penn, in his famous arrogance, failed to recognize the national hunger for something bigger, for the kind of change and reform that Obama promised. To the extent that Penn crafted a larger theme, it was one of Hillary’s “experience,” which tended to emphasize her inside-Washington profile. (It was perhaps no accident that the main architect of Obama’s strategy, the consultant David Axelrod, is based in Chicago and not Washington.)
A Washington mentality may even explain Hillary Clinton’s astoundingly inept approach to the nominating process. The Clinton team seemed to treat the primaries more as a media narrative than a race for delegates. First, in their insider arrogance, Clinton’s aides assumed that they could eliminate Obama early, in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. When that didn’t happen, they focused on the importance of wins in such “big states” as California, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the Obama team grasped that it could lose such key high-profile contests and still take the nomination by methodically racking up delegates in smaller, unglamorous places the media had little interest in, such as Idaho, Colorado, Maine, Kansas and Utah.
When Obama started to overtake Clinton in the pledged delegate count, she fell back on the ultimate Washington insider’s argument: that superdelegates, the creation of the inside-Washington party machine, would come to her rescue and override the will of the voters. Not only did this strategy fail, it enhanced Clinton’s image as an insulated Beltway manipulator.
Even Clinton’s supposed mastery of political media backfired on her. Her media team overplayed its hand early in the campaign, engendering resentment among reporters with a bare-knuckled, kill-or-be-killed philosophy cultivated during past Clinton scandals. Last September, for instance, Clinton aides forced GQ magazine to spike a critical story on her campaign by threatening to withhold access to Bill Clinton.
And other aides, notably Penn, became figures of ridicule with their constant over-spinning as they found ever-more creative ways to explain away Obama’s wins and Clinton’s losses (caucuses don’t really count, Clinton won more “electoral votes,” etc.).
Finally, Clinton accentuated her Washington problem in small but symbolic ways. Unlike Obama, she based her campaign headquarters in the Washington area. Unlike Obama, she accepted contributions from registered lobbyists. Indeed, last year she actually defended that despised profession, saying that “a lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans.” (True, perhaps, but something you’d only hear from a person who’s been in Washington a long time.) This was disastrous imagery at a time when millions of voters view Washington with open contempt.
There are, to be sure, other important factors behind Clinton’s defeat: her abandonment by black voters; Bill’s endless campaign trail outbursts; her own shortcomings as a candidate, as exemplified by her false claim to have faced sniper fire in Bosnia. But ultimately, Clinton’s greatest error was in becoming the ultimate Washington insider -- just when Democratic voters were yearning for the ultimate Washington outsider. It is an ironic fate for a woman who herself first came to Washington as an outsider -- and perhaps a cautionary tale for Barack Obama, should he win in November.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor at the New Republic.