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What Is the What If?

Ten thought experiments exploring the possibility of Hillary Clinton, nominee.

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History will record the Indiana and North Carolina primaries as the events that secured the 2008 Democratic nomination for Barack Obama—and put the final nails in the coffin of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Oh, sure, Clinton intends to finish out the remaining primaries. And she’ll certainly keep pressing to seat the disputed Florida and Michigan delegations. But the harsh attacks on Obama are almost certainly a thing of the past, and the chances of a scorched-earth march to Denver are vanishingly small. Clinton may have pushed things further and longer than some Democrats would have liked. But the notion that she’s some lunatic party-wrecker is the purest dum-dum drivel.

That the primaries in the Hoosier and Tar Heel states proved the scenes of HRC’s demise strikes me as ironic, because they were also the first time all year that she actually found her groove. In high-school gyms, train depots, and fire stations, she turned in performances that were sharp, energetic, and laced through with an antic, even madcap, populism—her vows to “go right at OPEC,” her attacks on Wall Street “money brokers” for their role in causing the recession—that drew whoops and hollers from the working-class audiences to which she was playing. Her staff was exhausted, bedraggled, shriveled; Hillary fairly glowed. “What’s got into her?” I asked one of her advisers in Evansville, Indiana, late on the night before the vote. He smiled and said, “She’s finally having fun.”

The operative word in this remark was finally. For much of the campaign, Clinton’s joylessness, her unhappy warriorhood, was painfully evident. Unlike her husband, who has always reveled in the rituals of politics like a toddler attacking a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, Hillary seemed to regard appealing for votes as a pesky chore for those who aspire to govern. It was only at the end that the stump became for her a source of vitality.

Unfortunately for Clinton, this change in affect came too late in the game to alter the final score. But it raises questions that I suspect will haunt her and her adjutants for many months to come: What if Hillary had found her métier—and also her champion-of-the-working-class, fighter-for-the-forgotten message—a year ago, instead of a month ago? What if she’d run as the gritty, scrappy battler all along, rather than coming across as the bloodless, entitled, imperious candidate of inevitability?

This is hardly the only road-not-taken that will cause lost sleep among the Clintonites once this thing is well and truly over. Indeed, the list is longer than the still-secret roster of donors to her husband’s presidential library. But herewith I offer my personal Top Ten “what ifs” as a kind of roundabout postmortem of an operation that will surely be remembered as the coulda-shoulda-woulda campaign.

1. What if Hillary had gone negative against Obama last fall?
In 2007, the Clinton campaign treated the hopemonger with kid gloves, which seemed a sensible strategy as her lead over him widened and he struggled to gain his footing. But then Obama caught fire after his famous speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa in November, and some Clinton advisers (including 42, it’s been reported) argued that the time had come to take him out, by making many of the same arguments regarding his inexperience that Hillary would deploy months later. Doing so would have entailed substantial risks in goody-goody Iowa. But then Clinton came in third there anyway—and Obama, unscuffed, was off and running.

2. Speaking of Iowa, what if Clinton had skipped the caucuses?
The idea was floated a year ago by her former deputy campaign manager, Mike Henry, who wrote, in a 1,500-word internal memo, “If she walks away from Iowa she will devalue Iowa—our consistently weakest state.” The risks here, too, were obvious enough: How could the putative front-runner forgo the first contest? With the benefit of hindsight, however, some Clinton hands concede that Henry was prescient in his fears and arguably correct in his prescription.

3. What if Clinton had apologized for her Iraq-war vote?
Her refusal to do so contained elements of both principle and calculation. But it opened the door to BHO and allowed him to argue that wisdom was more important than experience in foreign policy. And it provided Obama and John Edwards with a point of attack that drowned out Clinton’s positive message for much of 2007.

4. What if Clinton had learned the real lesson of New Hampshire?
To most observers, that lesson was obvious: Clinton’s sudden, shocking display of humanity had put her over the top against the odds. All along, there had been a running debate within her camp about softening her image and incorporating elements of her biography—her decades as a champion of the nation’s children, for instance—in her campaign narrative. But Hillary sided with her chief strategist, Mark Penn, in the view that this was sissy stuff. She was befuddled by all the fuss made over her tears in the Granite State. And she came to believe that the aggressive contrasts with Obama drawn by her campaign—in particular, by her finger-wagging spouse—had made the difference there. So instead of continuing to let her private side show through, she returned to her programmatic focus and often robotic style of presentation, a choice that kept her in her comfort zone but demonstrated a lack of capacity for growth.


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