Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is more than $20 million in debt, and Slate’s “Hillary Deathwatch” rates her chance to win the Democratic nomination at 1.7%. According to David Letterman, her campaign has become America’s most expensive fantasy camp.
The what-went-wrong stories are already appearing. The most noted, and best reported, is Michelle Cottle’s in The New Republic. She got “more than a dozen” Clinton campaign staffers to offer, anonymously, their post-mortems. None of them will startle anyone who reads the papers. My favorite, because it betrays the disorienting effects of working 90-hour weeks in a campaign’s echo chamber, is, “I don’t think anybody in America doesn’t think she can do the job. What they’re dying for is to know a little bit more about her.” It turned out that lots of Americans, including millions of Democrats and independents, had grave doubts as to whether Hillary can do the job, and were hoping desperately to avoid learning even one more thing about her.
Some Democrats, eager for the loser of their contest to go away quickly and quietly and not complicate the winner’s task in the general election, are partial to the most forgiving explanation of the final result. It holds that the only thing that really “went wrong” was that Hillary happened to run in a year when she faced a political phenomenon. According to Michael Tomasky, the only way a “relative unknown” like Barack Obama wrests a presidential nomination from the most famous woman in America is that he “wows people. He strikes an emotional chord that the better-known quantity, with all her formidable advantages and skills, just couldn’t strike with as many folks.” Had Hillary run the same campaign against the field from four years earlier, according to this theory, she would have steamrolled John Kerry and Howard Dean, and everyone would be writing stories about the strategic brilliance of Mark Penn, the managerial talents of Patti Solis Doyle, and the devastating cable TV charm of Terry McAuliffe and Lanny Davis.
The problem with this theory is that it’s too soon to tell whether Hillary Clinton was a good candidate who lost to an excellent one, or a lousy candidate who lost to a decent one. Barack Obama will have to win in November, to give the generous assessment traction. And even then . . . Jimmy Carter was a relative unknown who (barely) won a general election when the Republican opposition was battered. He then spent the next four years as president, and the subsequent 28 as an ex-president, diminishing the political reputation he established in 1976. No one would think to offer a kind word today for Morris Udall or Scoop Jackson by saying, “After all, he did lose to Jimmy Carter.”
Knowing only what we can know today, the fact that Hillary Clinton, with all her advantages, couldn’t beat an opponent who was a state senator as recently as 2004, then won a U.S. Senate seat only when his Democratic and Republican opponents’ campaigns self-destructed – a guy who, as the GOP consultant Alex Castellanos says, “just paid off his college loans a couple of years ago” – argues just as easily that she lost the 2008 nomination as that he won it. The eventual story may be, not that it was her bad luck to run against Obama, but his good luck to run against Hillary.