This argument was powerful, logical, but it also entailed clear risks. That the persona projected by Clinton would be seen not as authoritative but as imperious, bloodless, entitled. That a campaign waged with an eye forever cast toward the general election would lead her to embrace positions (supporting the Bush administration in declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, for instance) that would not endear her to Democratic-primary voters. That a relentless focus on her experience would keep her from connecting with the craving for change so evident in the electorate. That if Obama finally caught fire, she would have precious few reserves of genuine affection among voters to fall back on—and this is precisely what seemed to happen about a month ago in Iowa.
The reaction of the Clinton campaign to the Obama surge was, to put it mildly, aggressive—and, I think, deeply telling. The candidate herself went negative, with apparent gusto (“Now the fun part starts”). So did her husband, on Charlie Rose. The candidate’s opposition-research team went negative, to the point of absurdity (kindergartengate). The candidate’s surrogates went beyond negative into the realm of the genuinely vile (Billy Shaheen raising the possibility that Obama had dealt drugs, Bob Kerrey jibbering about his having attended a “secular madrassa”). Going negative is part of the game, it’s true, and far be it from me to tsk-tsk. But it’s considered dumb politics in Iowa, where the aversion to campaign bile is acute—which raised the possibility, firmly held by some in Obama’s upper echelon, that Clinton’s aim was to help Edwards win and deny Obama victory at all costs, including a third-place finish for herself.
The onslaught against Obama was followed by Clinton’s “likability tour” (a phrase that, to be fair, the campaign never itself employed—blame the Times for that one) of Iowa, a week in which she helicoptered around the state displaying her squishier side. I happened to catch several of these events, and although Clinton often sounded as if she were on Quaaludes, her voice bedtime-story soft, her cadences syrupy slow, the effect wasn’t nearly as dismaying as you might imagine. Actually, it was kinda soothing.
And yet all over conservative talk radio, the ridicule was withering and ceaseless, and not without reason. Here was Clinton trying, in the eleventh hour, to prove to Iowans that she was, well, human after all. The parodic aspects of such a tour were impossible to deny, even by some of Hillary’s most ardent and loyal adherents. On returning to New York, in fact, I had lunch with one of them, whose reaction to the coverage out of Iowa was this: “She seems totally, completely lost.”
Whether or not Clinton herself is at sea, the closing weeks in Iowa have exposed one of the great misconceptions of this campaign year: that her campaign operation is indomitable, even infallible. There can be no question that many of Clinton’s adjutants are among the best in the business. But surprisingly few of them have ever been tested in a primary campaign. The tensions between them that have flared openly of late—between Penn and her communications czar, Howard Wolfson, in particular—have been simmering all year, and even longer. And while Bill Clinton may, as it’s often said, have the keenest radar in American politics, his interventions in the past few weeks have only intensified the sense of turmoil in Hillaryland. By all accounts, he is more or less running the show now.
And perhaps, in the end, when the history is written, WJC will be seen to have saved HRC’s bacon in Iowa. In the past week or so, there have been signs that Clinton’s position in Iowa has stabilized and may even be improving—and that Obama’s surge may be ebbing. (Though the retooled stump speech he rolled out last Thursday is a hell of a closing argument.) In the final days, Clinton seems to be reverting to a form more closely resembling the one she showcased for most of this year. Her homestretch pitch—“Time to pick a president” is its theme—has at least the virtue of consistency. And it may be that the awful assassination of Benazir Bhutto, with its intimations of a world still wildly perilous and unpredictable, may make the experience argument resonate more powerfully than it otherwise would have done.
Still, even if Iowa turns into Clinton’s springboard to the nomination, what has happened there the past few weeks may come back to haunt her. For countless independents and even many Democrats, the suspicion, the fear, is that Hillary is a candidate without a core or convictions other than that she should be, must be, president. That her shifting personas, and the machine she has assembled to create and perpetrate them, are designed to conceal the fact that she is nothing but ambition incarnate. And that she and her husband are entangled in a bizarro codependency that coughs up chaos and queasy-making psychodrama in roughly equal measure. One need not accept the most extreme version of these views to acknowledge that they are a very real, perhaps the central, political obstacle she would face in a general election. In most presidential races, it’s a rule of thumb that what happens in Iowa stays in Iowa. But Hillary may not be so lucky.