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How Hillary Lost Her Grit

Here’s a bit of a McCain-free break for you all, switching the spotlight for a moment to one of the few politicians who might be willing to swap his or her current situation for St. John’s. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has reached the point where people are rushing to write its obituary, or at least politely offering to arrange for last rites.

The journalistic bard of Democratic political travails, Adam Nagourney, summed up the situation in the New York Times this morning:

When Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton meets Senator Barack Obama at a one-on-one debate in Austin on Thursday night, one of her final opportunities to change the course of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, she will again face the challenge that has repeatedly stymied her: how to discredit her popular opponent without hurting herself.

Even now, after a string of defeats, her advisers are divided over how to proceed as they head toward what could be her last stands, in Ohio and Texas on March 4.

Some — led by Mark Penn, her chief strategist — have been pushing Mrs. Clinton to draw sharper and deeper contrasts with Mr. Obama, arguing that she has no other option, campaign officials said.

Others, particularly Mandy Grunwald, her media adviser, have pushed for a less aggressive approach, arguing that attacks would not help Mrs. Clinton’s campaign in an environment in which she is increasingly appearing to struggle, aides said.

This latest division within the campaign reflects intense frustration among Mrs. Clinton’s advisers as they look for ways to turn around their campaign against Mr. Obama, an opponent whose appeal and skills as a candidate caught them by surprise. So far, her own positive message has been outshone by his, and every line of attack on him has fallen short, fizzled or backfired.

. . . Mrs. Clinton woke up Wednesday to the realization that she had lost nearly every advantage she once could claim over Mr. Obama: money, momentum, a lead in national polls and an edge in delegates. Polls suggest that Democrats now view Mr. Obama as more electable than Mrs. Clinton. After her ninth and 10th defeats in a row on Tuesday in Wisconsin and Hawaii, Mrs. Clinton is running out of time.

How did it come to this? Plenty of credit has to go to Obama’s chart-breaking combination of charisma, fundraising ability and organization, but then again, all that seemed to be doing him little good last fall — a time when Clinton seemed to fit the profile that Democratic voters were looking for in hiring a presidential nominee. In sensing the initiative shift just before the Iowa caucuses, I tried to explain:

The problem is that, to quote myself from November, "her rationale is her experience, combined with her ability to take a punch" — and she never fully regained her stride from the first punch she took from Obama and Edwards, the charges that she was too close to the current power structure to change it effectively.

. . . Because people tend to prefer an impractical plan for doing the right thing versus a practical plan for doing the wrong thing, Clinton’s failure to silence the doubts about her passion and commitment has left the door open to her challengers.

Of course, this changed somewhat when Hillary did show some passion just before the New Hampshire primary — but even as the results came in, I cautioned that she hadn’t solved the entire problem:

. . . my line on Hillary has been that voters don’t doubt her experience or knowledge of the issues; what they fear she lacks is the passion and commitment to fight (rather than fold, compromise, or otherwise do the politically safe thing) when the going gets tough.

Yesterday she showed the passion, so in her moment in the spotlight tonight (and/or in the days ahead) she needs to underline her commitment. If you see or hear her say something to the effect of "If you give me a chance, I will not let you down!" when she addresses her supporters, you’ll know people on her strategy team agree.

To put it briefly, the moment I called for never happened. If you peruse Clinton’s campaign ads, you’ll see how they clearly focus on communicating "Message: I Care" rather than the can-do, gritty nature I thought was her advantage back in November.  Perhaps it’s the fault of having a campaign run by a pollster, but you can sense the desire to boost the numbers on particular survey questions ("… cares about the issues important to me…") rather than deliver the core rationale of why she should be elected President at this time.

Back in September, I needled Obama’s high-flown messaging by saying, "the country [is] stuck in the ditch in any number of painful ways.  So the candidate people are likely to vote for is the one who gives the best sense of being ready to roll up their sleeves and start digging us out.  And to a country that feels stuck in a ditch, the guy in the impeccably clean shirt telling us that the real solution is to ‘redefine the relationship between your car and the road’ probably isn’t going to get a great reception." 

The epitaph for Hillary Clinton’s campaign should be that to a country that feels stuck in a ditch, telling us how she hears our voices isn’t much good either.  We don’t want a candidate that feels our pain — we want one who’s going to pull us out of the ditch.  Because she forgot to make that commitment, Democrats went with the guy who did, no matter how suspiciously clean his shirt was.

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Swopa has been sharing prescient, if somewhat anal-retentive, analysis and garden-variety mockery with Internet readers since 1995 or so, when he began debunking the fantasies of Clinton-scandal aficionados on Usenet. He is currently esconced as the primary poster at Needlenose (