The cheeseheads had just rejected her emphatically, overwhelmingly. The Teamsters had just flipped her the bird. The pundits were composing her political obituary. And another handful of superdelegates had just thrown in their lot with Barack Obama. Now, on the evening after the Wisconsin primary, Hillary Clinton was deep in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, standing onstage before a crowd of mostly Hispanic students in Brownsville, Texas. The Rio Grande Valley is the place that gave Hillary her first taste of national politics in 1972, when she volunteered there for George McGovern—and that, 36 years later, she is counting on to help rescue her increasingly doomstruck-seeming presidential campaign.
A moment ripe with possibilities, no? A moment to show that she’s not dead yet, to summon up those elusive qualities of fire and tenacity and humanity that flashed so briefly, so tantalizingly, during the New Hampshire primary. Or maybe to let loose and rip Obama a new one, to draw a powerful contrast between herself and a man she regards as her inferior in all matters except speechifying. But, alas, it was not to be. What Clinton did instead was shout the same bromides that have deposited her in a hole so cavernous she can almost see Beijing. “Thirty-five years of experience.” “Ready to lead.” “Ready on day one.” Yadda yadda yadda.
It’s sometimes said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome is a functional definition of insanity. In politics, though, it’s typically an indicator of desperation or exhaustion—or, as seems to be the case with Hillary, both.
Yet however excruciating the past few weeks have been for Clinton, the days ahead will confront her with two of the most daunting and fateful questions of her political life. In the face of a crumbling electoral coalition, a corps of advisers riven by dissent, and a rival coated in some unholy admixture of Teflon and pixie dust, what can she do to win the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4? And if she does, but still lags behind Obama, just how far will she then go to secure her party’s nomination?
In case you harbor any doubts that Clinton needs to carry both the Lone Star and Buckeye states, no less an authority than her husband said so publicly the other day. But in Texas, despite the Clintons’ long ties to the state and a vast Hispanic population, the public polls show the race to be a statistical dead heat. Add to that the state’s complex rules for delegate allocation, the effect of which is that areas with sizable black populations are weighted more heavily than those laden with Latinos, and its bizarro part-primary, part-caucus process, and you can see why many Texan pols believe Obama has the edge. Meanwhile, in Ohio, Clinton currently holds a lead, but the state’s demographics are similar to Wisconsin’s—only with a higher proportion of African-American voters. D’ohh.
Given all this and the thunderous wave of momentum Obama is surfing, Clinton’s central strategic objective is to alter the dynamics of the race. Beltway gasbags galore have offered helpful suggestions of Hail Mary maneuvers regarding her positive message. Be humble! Be bold! Be personal! Be … somebody else! Clinton’s advisers have heard it all. Some of them even agree. (“Oh, the roads not taken,” a senior Clinton adviser sighed to me recently.) But few of them believe that such gambits would be successful this late in the game. Instead, they’d be seen as inauthentic gimmicks, as her “likability tour” of Iowa all over again.
Hence Clinton’s decision, on the positive side, to stick to her well-thumbed script. To the riposte that it simply isn’t working, her people point to her victories in places such as California. But the problem is that the race has shifted in ways that limit her capacity to accomplish much with such appeals. “The day after Wisconsin, I looked at the exit polls and saw that she’d won among voters who care most about experience by a margin of 95 to 5,” says one Democratic strategist. “So her message is speaking exclusively to a group from which she has nothing left to gain.”
With all positive avenues effectively blocked off, the debate in Clinton-land is all about going negative—or, more precisely, how negative to go. In Wisconsin, the campaign hit Obama with TV ads attacking him on health care, Social Security, and his refusal to debate Clinton there; with direct mail on his “present” votes in Illinois; with conference calls accusing him of flip-flopping on his commitment to public financing, and, yes, of rhetorical plagiarism. “A friend of mine told me how the Marines train people in hand-to-hand combat,” says retired Über-consultant Bob Shrum. “If your opponent has a weapon and you don’t, you pick up an ashtray, a lamp, a chair, anything you can, and keep throwing stuff. It seems to me that’s what the Clinton campaign is doing.”