Then came New Hampshire and her apparent breakthrough: the brimming tear ducts, Obama’s “you’re likable enough, Hillary,” the sense that the media was trying to declare the game over in the second inning. The combination of vulnerability and tenacity was new for her. It seemed to spark something, not just in her, but among the voters, even those who’d never felt an ounce of admiration or affection for her.
But the lesson was immediately lost: In the contests that followed, from Nevada and South Carolina to Super Tuesday to the eleven consecutive losses at Obama’s hands in February, Clinton reverted to her old, bad form. Or maybe the lesson was never actually grasped in the first place. “She didn’t understand what happened in New Hampshire,” says one of her top advisers. “It was like, ‘What did I do?’ ”
Hillary’s weaknesses on the stump would have been problematic on their own. But they were exacerbated by the strategy that Penn had concocted for her. It was conventional, safe, inherently conservative, and not obviously wrong. It played to what he and many others, including Bill Clinton, perceived as Hillary’s advantages. As the architects of her campaign, they believed they were designing a well-appointed estate in which the candidate would be comfortable—but instead it turned out to be a prison, where the iron bars were the leaden rhetoric of “35 years of experience, “ready to lead,” yadda yadda yadda. And although it took Hillary some time to realize that she’d allowed herself to be thus incarcerated, realize it she eventually did. The jailbreak she staged came too late to save her from defeat. But not too late to keep her from emerging as a hell of a politician.
Ed Rendell remembers vividly the moment when he saw the transformation with his own two eyes. It was the first Saturday that Clinton spent campaigning in Pennsylvania, the state over which Rendell presides as governor. “We went to a Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Scranton, and the women were treating her like she was Brad Pitt,” Rendell recalls. “She was connecting with voters who were never considered part of her base—working-class folks, poorer folks—with fairly complex and sophisticated ideas that she put into good, simple, emotion-producing terms.” To Rendell, a retail politician par excellence, the difference from the Clinton on display a year earlier was astonishing. “Back then, it seemed like she was afraid of making a mistake; she was on tenterhooks all the time. But by Pennsylvania, she was much more comfortable in her skin. She was so good, so up, having so much fun, she almost reminded me of Hubert Humphrey—a happy warrior.”
The new Hillary had first emerged, in fact, in Ohio and Texas. After Obama’s eleven-state streak, it wasn’t just the media who were telling her to cash in her chips. The Obamans were claiming it was now mathematically impossible for her to secure the nomination. Some big-name Democrats were starting to grumble that her continuing would fatally wound the party. On the night she pulled off her unlikely twofer, she opened her victory speech with this refrain: “For everyone here in Ohio and across America who’s ever been counted out but refused to be knocked out, and for everyone who has stumbled but stood right back up, and for everyone who works hard and never gives up, this one is for you.”
With that speech, Clinton had finally found a theme: the resilient fighter, the underdog, the victim. And with each successive contest, as the calls for her to fold grew louder even as she continued winning (nine of the final fifteen primaries, for the record) that theme only became sharper. Having abandoned her corporate, Establishment campaign, she seemed more than liberated; she seemed intoxicated. Suddenly, she was giving terrific, well-modulated Election Night speeches—speeches that were every bit as good, in their way, as Obama’s more-celebrated orations. Suddenly, she was loving the rope lines, working them feverishly, hungrily, as if … well, as if she were her husband. Suddenly, the hustings were no longer for her a royal pain in the ass but instead a source of sustenance, vitality, and even joy.
What changed? What turned her from someone roundly dismissed as an automaton into a campaigner whose skills were routinely given props by the likes of Pat Buchanan?
“First of all, I think a lot of the stereotypes were never true to begin with,” she says. “But I don’t think that I’ve ever been a particularly effective television persona. It’s probably the most common thing that people say to me when they actually meet me. So the chance I had to connect with so many people, and then for those people, through the ripple effect—saying, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s really nice, she’s really warm, she really cares, I really liked her’—things really took off. But I’m sure I got better.” Clinton pauses, then begins to laugh. “Look, I believe in experience! So the more experience you have, the better you will be! And therefore I got better!”