Penn also seized on the fact that the core of Obama’s support was among upscale voters, who, according to data laid out in Microtrends, tend to focus more on personality and character, whereas downscale voters are more inclined to focus on issues—and vote for the candidates they see as most effective in defending their interests. “The eggheads have become the jugheads and the jugheads have become the eggheads,” is how Penn puts it. And though eggheads dominate the media and donor class, jugheads typically determine the Democratic nominee—hence Clinton’s nods to populist economics and her campaign’s early, compelling ads promising to fight for America’s “invisibles.”
More risky, but more pivotal, has been Penn’s strategy in dealing with Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq War: not simply urging her not to apologize but painting her as the most effective anti-warrior in the race. This effort began in March, when Penn appeared at a Harvard forum with Obama’s top guru, David Axelrod, and contended, disingenuously, that Clinton’s and Obama’s records on Iraq were essentially the same. Afterward, Axelrod was livid. (He and Penn, as it happens, worked together on Clinton’s 2000 Senate race and feuded bitterly: “Hoo, boy, they hate each other,” a Clintonite involved in that campaign reports.) But in the months that followed, Obama’s campaign looked on as Clinton proceeded to blur the distinctions between herself and Obama on the war, defusing what had been her greatest liability.
With similar adroitness, Penn and his team have set about stealing the mantle of change from Obama, crafting an argument that, as Clinton put it in a recent speech, “change is just a word without the strength and experience to make it happen.”
The presence of Bill Clinton onstage behind his wife during that address was no accident. At the heart of Obama’s message is a generational appeal—“It’s time to turn the page”—that touches obliquely on a concept much discussed in Democratic circles: Clinton fatigue. Yet even back in 2000, in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, when Penn worked briefly for Al Gore, he regarded the concept as a crock. (When Gore asked Penn about Clinton fatigue, the pollster replied glibly, “I’m not tired of him—are you?” And was fired shortly thereafter.) Indeed, public polls confirm that 42 is by far the most popular Democrat within the party. And so, despite the risk that he will overshadow his wife, Bill has become a fixture on the campaign trail, speaking proudly of his record and helping Hillary gin up enthusiasm that matches Obama’s buzz.
Only a fool would conclude that it’s too late for Obama to alter the dynamic of the race and give Hillary a run for her money. But it may be that Edwards now occupies the better position to emerge as her main challenger. Though Edwards trails Clinton by an even larger margin than Obama does nationally, he is closer to her in Iowa (and even leads in some polls there), and is arguably more deeply rooted and better organized in the state than anyone. Certainly, his campaign has been the most substantive of the three. Also the most ideologically consistent and consistently ideological. And neither he nor his staff shrinks from confronting the nostalgic premise of the Clinton campaign.
“They’re not about change—they’re about changing back,” says Edwards’s deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince. I mention the incongruity of Bill Clinton, whose theme song in 1992 was “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow),” now stumping for his wife, declaring, “Yesterday’s news was pretty good.” Prince laughs and replies, “Yeah, their theme song this year should be ‘Glory Days,’ by Springsteen.”
No doubt, the potency of Clinton nostalgia within the Democratic party can’t be overstated. But in the broader electorate, Clinton fatigue may be more real than Penn is prepared to admit—a factor any savvy Republican candidate will undoubtedly try to exploit. (Indeed, a straightforwardly anti-dynastic argument, at once anti-Clinton and anti-Bush, might well have resonance with many swing voters in the general election.) And the past two weeks have provided a reminder—in the form of the metastasizing scandal around Norman Hsu, the onetime fugitive who raised nearly $900,000 for Hillary’s campaign—of the dark side of the first Clinton era. As Prince points out, Hillary has benefited mightily from the fact that all of the negative stories about her from those years were aired nationally long ago, because the press, with its aversion to “old news,” has declined to rehash them this cycle.
But the Hsu imbroglio may put those stories back in play again, opening the door to a Democrat ready to take on Hillary and her husband’s legacy with equal vigor. And Edwards just might be that Democrat. The opening for him is small: win Iowa or go home. But if he does win there, all bets are off. When I ask Penn if he worries more about Edwards or Obama, he replies, “Campaigns worry about everything all the time. They’re never smooth. Everyone has a near-death experience before it’s over.” It would be no small irony if Hillary’s was delivered by her and her spouse’s former selves.