What Is the What If?

Photo: John Gress/Landov

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.

5. What if the Clintonites hadn’t spent their war chest like a bunch of whiskey-addled sailors?
Of all the unexpected developments of 2008, perhaps the most astonishing is that, by the end of January, the Clinton campaign was broke—while the insurgent Obamans were flush, allowing them to outspend Hillary in the states after Super Duper Tuesday by two or three or four to one. One difference was Obama-land’s mastery of the Web as a fund-raising tool, which the Clinton people never got the hang of. But another was the latter side’s grotesque overexpenditures in 2007, a grievous error that must be laid at the feet of her former campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, an operative Clinton valued more for her loyalty than her ability to actually do the job. Recipe for disaster.

6. What if the Clintonites hadn’t ignored the other caucus states?
Arguably their single biggest tactical blunder was the decision last fall not to invest in building organizations in places such as Minnesota, Washington, Maine, and Idaho, where Obama would not only win but rack up huge pledged-delegate margins. The decision was rooted in arrogance and complacency; in the faulty premise that by carrying the big states on Super Duper Tuesday, Clinton would be able to bring the race to an early conclusion.

7. What if Clinton had dumped Mark Penn before he shot himself in the head?
No single figure was more influential in the Clinton campaign than her portly, perpetually rumpled supreme Svengali. And no one was a greater source of the instability and infighting that turned what was supposed to have been a well-oiled juggernaut into a leaky, creaky vessel. Roundly despised by colleagues, a walking catalogue of conflicts of interest, and a man with no history of successfully negotiating a Democratic presidental primary, Penn might still have been an asset had his strategic advice been sound. But it wasn’t (see No. 10).

8. What if Clinton had “divorced” her husband after South Carolina?
Bill Clinton is a man of gargantuan political talents, to be sure. But his omnipresence made Clinton fatigue an inescapable facet of the campaign’s thematics. And after the debacle in the Palmetto State, which thoroughly (and maybe permanently) alienated black voters from Hillary’s cause, it was clear to many on her team that he was doing more harm than good to his wife’s electoral prospects. Should she have sidelined him, standing up one day and declaring that she was a big girl and could fight her own fights, thank you very much? Some Clintonites think so. And even those who disagree admit that WJC’s energies should have been more carefully, productively channeled. “There was no way he wasn’t going to play a role,” says one. “But did we ever find the right role for him? I think the answer is obviously no.”

9. What if Clinton had gone magnanimous on Obama and the Reverend Wright?
The GOP strategist Alex Castellanos offers an intriguing theory about how Hillary might have reacted differently, and more effectively, to the issue that threatened to swallow Obama. “After the Reverend Wright controversy, Obama was suffering the worst press month of his campaign,” he says. “Hillary had a choice. She could have gotten bigger, more presidential, less political; she could have risen to defend Obama, saying, ‘This is outrageous and has no place in politics.’ Instead, she chose to become smaller, more political, less presidential. She diminished the value of the attacks on him by making them hers. Her instincts betrayed her. What if she had chosen to soar above a weakened Obama? That was her moment. And I believe she missed her last great opportunity to win this race.”

10. What if Clinton had cast herself as the candidate of change?
At the insistence of Penn, Hillary positioned herself from the outset as the avatar of experience, “ready from day one,” as she liked to say, to become the commander-in-chief. But this strategy profoundly misread the prevailing winds gusting across the political landscape—winds favoring a candidate representing a fundamental break with the past. It’s often said that Clinton, as a dynastic figure, would have found this impossible to pull off. But as the first plausible female president ever, why should this have been so? “There was always a powerful positive case for her as the change candidate,” says Democratic guru Bob Shrum. “Instead, she let herself become the Establishment candidate in a year of change.”

And here lies a final point worth making. In the days ahead, retrospective second-guessing and finger-pointing will be everywhere and vicious in Clinton-land—and God knows, as the list above makes clear, there’s blame enough to go around. But in the end the success or failure of any electoral venture rests mainly on the candidate herself. For Clinton, this will undoubtedly be the hardest truth to grasp. But if she hopes to do better next time—and trust me, there will be a next time—grasping it fully will be essential.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

What Is the What If?