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The Fall and Rise of Hillary Clinton

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But with his antics in South Carolina, the Y-chromosome Clinton rendered those assumptions inoperative. His comparison of Obama to Jesse Jackson was interpreted by many people, and certainly most black leaders, as an instance of gratuitous race-baiting. And from that point on, Hillary’s support among African-Americans, which last fall had been competitive with Obama’s, diminished to the vanishing point, seldom registering above single digits. Now, part of that swing is undoubtedly attributable to her rival’s having proved himself a plausible nominee with his victory in Iowa. But all of it? Not likely.

For Hillary, her husband’s increasingly erratic behavior was obviously a problem. But it was also a kind of opportunity: It allowed her to put some needed distance between them, both literally and metaphorically. On the one hand, there was no one whose political advice she valued more than his. On the other, his incursions into her campaign all too often devolved into exercises in solipsism. About halfway through his infamous, finger-wagging “fairy tale” tirade against Obama in New Hampshire, Clinton suddenly wandered off into a self-pitying denunciation of Ken Starr—who “spent $70 million and indicted innocent people to find out I wouldn’t take a nickel to see the cow jump over the moon”—which had exactly what to do with helping Hillary win? She had to wonder.

So as the campaign wore on, Bill was dispatched to small-town America—to “places that have never seen a president,” as the campaign liked to put it—where he was less likely to step on her headlines. At the same time, Hillary began to carve out for herself a substantive and political identity distinct from his. “The truth is, she is to the left of him on domestic-policy issues,” one of her top lieutenants says. “The health-care mandate. Freezing foreclosures and interest rates. Renegotiating nafta. And then she’s to the right of him on foreign policy. I’m not sure we knew that—I’m not even sure that she knew that—before this race started.”

Nor did anyone know in advance to what extent Hillary’s support was truly hers or the product of residual affection for her husband. But from South Carolina on, it would be hard to make the case that she benefited much, if at all, from Bill. “Actually, from that point on,” says one longtime friend of hers, “I think you’d have to say that people were voting for her in spite of him, rather than because of him.”

And vote for her they did—in numbers that mark one of great accomplishments of her campaign or any other. Forget her operation’s dubious argument that she “won” the popular vote (a claim only true if you count her lopsided victory in Michigan, where Obama’s name was not on the ballot). As her adviser Ann Lewis points out, “After March 1, she got 500,000 more votes, at a time when she was being outspent by two to one. She’s got a significant nationwide following that is unusual in that it is both broad and deep.”

Clinton’s coalition was indeed both of those things. And if it had been just a tiny bit broader, she not only would have beaten Obama but put herself in a position to become a kind of female reincarnation of Bobby Kennedy, odd as that may sound.

By the time I sat down with Clinton, RFK had been on my mind for more than a month, since I traveled with her in Indiana, a state in which Kennedy won one of his fabled primary victories almost exactly 40 years earlier. The day before the vote there this year, the Times ran a front-page story headlined “Seeing Grit and Ruthlessness in Clinton’s Love of the Fight.” It occurred to me that many of the same traits attributed by the Times to Clinton—the cutthroatness, the grudge-holding, the scrappiness, the battler’s stance—had also been applied to Kennedy, so I offered this observation in an e-mail to Wolfson. “Funny—I just finished reading a book on RFK and the Indiana campaign,” he wrote back. “I am obsessed with RFK.”

Wolfson’s obsession was understandable, for the coalition Kennedy was engaged in assembling in 1968 before Sirhan Sirhan took his life was a fusion of white working-class voters, Catholics, Latinos, and African-Americans. By the time of this year’s contest in Indiana, it was clear that Clinton had succeeded in bringing together a remarkably similar coalition—except, of course, for the last voting bloc on the list, whose overwhelming allegiance to Obama arguably proved decisive.

When I ask Clinton if it pains her that she’d been unable to stitch together the coalition RFK promised (and that her husband, to a degree, delivered in 1992 and 1996), she slowly shakes her head. “We came close,” she says quietly. “The fact that I received so many votes overall with such a minuscule amount of African-American votes demonstrates the power of the coalition I did put together. But I respect those who voted for Senator Obama for all kinds of reasons. You know, with me, it was a much broader base, but he had a very deep base in places where he needed it—either a deep African-American base or an activist liberal base. That’s why it ended up in a virtual tie.”


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