But Clinton has other, better arguments that she can make―and ones that may cut more ice coming from an underdog than from the Queen of Inevitability. Though change soundly trumped experience in Iowa, Hillary’s advantage in the latter department will become more salient as Obama commits his first major gaffe as a front-runner. The Clinton team will also hammer away at Obama on substance: his at times maddening programmatic vagueness, his focus on process over bottom-line deliverables, the thinness of his policy accomplishments―all of which, I can attest, become more vividly apparent the more one hears him speak.
Such a strategy may sound like the one Walter Mondale used to beat back Gary Hart in 1984. And Clinton’s campaign has often been scored (and scorned) for its Mondale-esque qualities: for its caution and myopia, staleness and arch-Establishmentarianism. But certain aspects of Mondale’s counteroffensive were devastatingly effective, and might be profitably updated and reapplied. Recall, please, “Where’s the beef?”―a motif that was as much or more about Hart’s character as it was about policy. And make no mistake, the Clinton team is likely to unleash its fullest fury to demolish Obama’s character similarly.
Obama, of course, is no Hart. Young, fresh, centrist, running on change-change-change? Totally. But disorganized and underfunded? Hardly. And Obama now occupies a position that Hart never did: The race is his to lose. Yet arguably the thing that cost Hart most dearly was when, under assault by Mondale, he launched negative ads against the old warhorse that tarnished his image as unconventional, virtuous, supraordinary. Today, that image belongs to Obama. It may be his supreme asset. The question is whether he can retain it in the face of a strafing the ferocity of which he can only scarcely imagine.