Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The behavior of unhappy campaigns

Tolstoy wrote that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." In American politics, however, it's the unhappy campaigns that are all alike. In their growing desperation to stave off defeat, they tend to behave in very similar ways. And the Hillary Clinton campaign is currently a textbook case, for three reasons:

1. The candidate is exhibiting multiple personalities, mellow one day and volcanic the next, seemingly incapable of settling on a consistent tone and approach. Last Thursday night, she said she was "honored" to run with Barack Obama; yet on Monday, she painted him as a clueless Bush-style naif who would imperil America in a dangerous world. All this reflects the fact that her advisors have no clue what will work best to slow Obama's ongoing momentum. When a candidate is reduced to throwing everything but the "kitchen sink" (in the words of a Hillary advisor), it's a sign of weakness. Which Hillary will show up at the Ohio debate tonight?

2. The campaign is blaming the media for its woes. Spokesman Howard Wolfson whines that "the press has largly applauded (Obama)...that is a fact of life we labor under," and surrogate/Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell grouses that "the media doesn't like the Clintons for whatever reason." Scapegoating the messenger is standard practice for losers. But the scapegoaters seem to have amnesia. As recently as last summer, Hillary's detractors were complaining that the media had already anointed her as the inevitable nominee, based on her universal name ID and the alleged prowess of her political machine. (To cite one of many examples, here's New York Times blogger/professor Stanley Fish, writing last August: "It’s time to start thinking seriously about Hillary Clinton’s running mate...this one is over before it’s over.") I don't recall the Hillary people having any problems with the coverage at that point in time. Their argument today, apparently, is that the media should ignore or downplay the fact that Hillary has lost 11 straight contests, all by landslides. That losing record is really the "fact of life" that they labor under.

3. Another standard practice for losers is to try and explain away primary defeats as either statistical flukes or aberrations. The Hillary people have been trying this all along, shrugging off caucus losses as unrepresentative of general Democraric opinion (whereas, in reality, their failure to organize for these grassroots events has been vivid proof of their ineptitude), and blaming a string of primary losses on the presence of independent voters (as if Obama's strength with independents is a bad thing).

Now it's happening again. The other day, the ever-helpful Bill Clinton began to pre-spin the next potential defeat, this time in Texas. That key state, which votes a week from today, has a complex arrangement - a primary all day and a caucus in the evening; delegates are awarded in acordance with both sets of results. Referring to the caucus, here's what Bill told a crowd yesterday: "The doors open at 7 (pm) and they close at 7:15. It would be tragic if Hillary were to win this election in the daytime and somebody were to come in at night and take it away."

Translation: Bill is pre-spinning the primary as legitimate, and the caucus (where Hillary's organization, as we know, is far weaker) as illegitimate. So if Obama wins Texas narrowly, thanks to the caucus results, the Clintons are prepared to say in effect, "Well, this loss doesn't really count either, because she won it fair and square until the Obama people came in under the cover of night and took it away."

And one other thing: Bill told a falsehood about the hours of the caucus. The doors don't open at 7 and close at 7:15. According to a spokesman for the Texas Democratic party, the doors actually open around 7:15 and close at 9. Did Bill misspeak on purpose, narrowing the caucus times perhaps in the hopes discouraging voters from showing up? Gaming the system is also a standard practice for losers.