A Democratic operative who is in touch with the Obama campaign explains their strategy this way: Obama has the lead. Clinton can’t overtake him in pledged delegates. All they want to do is hold the lead until the convention and win the nomination without angering Clinton’s supporters, so that they can unify the party in the general election. I think this is a mistake, but then I think almost everything Obama has done in the weeks since the March 4 Texas and Ohio primaries has been misguided. He is playing the game the way college basketball used to be played before there was a shot clock: Take a lead into the last five minutes, spread the floor, and pass the ball back and forth while the time runs out. Passivity worked under those rules, but it doesn’t work in politics. It kills your momentum, and Obama’s momentum is dead. The Obama campaign is playing not to lose rather than playing to win.
Machiavelli, the first political consultant, wrote one of his most famous passages on the subject of fortune in politics:
For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly.
Fortune favors the bold. The Obama campaign has allowed Clinton to seize the initiative while he has tried to stay above the fray. He has not fought back; he has allowed Clinton to question his electability when he could have been questioning hers. The world of sports really is analagous to the world of politics. The cliche that you have to play one game at a time is right. It is folly to adopt a post-convention unification strategy when the moment of peril is right now, in Indiana and North Carolina and Oregon. Clinton has no business being in this race. Her strategy was ruined the moment she lost Iowa. She’s running low on money. But she isn’t going away, and she will have her people in control of the convention.
I think Obama’s fundamental problem is that he lacks good political instincts. How could he fail to see that Jeremiah Wright was going to be a problem? How could he make that comment about the bitter people of rural Pennsylvania clinging “to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” How could he go bowling when he couldn’t even break 40? He has–maybe I should say “had”–a great message, but he lacks a feel for political combat.
Here’s what I posted two days after the Texas and Ohio primaries. (I have edited out a comment about Tom Craddick’s toughness for brevity’s sake):
The national media attribute her success to Roy Spence’s 3 a.m. ad, and I’m all for one of our own getting the credit, but I think Clinton’s success had less to do with her than with Obama. His performance level has dropped. He wasn’t on his game in the Texas debate, and he was downright bad in the Ohio debate. Maybe he has been sick–a correspondent pointed out that he was blowing his nose at the rally the night before the Texas debate–but I think he’s got a different kind of bug. He has begun to read his own press clippings and, worse, believe them. When I watched the Ohio debate, I could practically see him grow a glass jaw. Clinton hit him again and again, and he didn’t fight back. He let her bully him in the discussion over Louis Farrakhan’s endorsement. He said he renounced it and Clinton said he should reject it and he argued a while and finally said, “OK, I renounce it and reject it.” Weak!
Hillary has been running ads suggesting that she is stronger and would make the better commander-in-chief, and he played right into it. I think women got the message a lot more clearly than the message of the telephone ad: Hillary Clinton is tougher than Barack Obama. I feel as if I am watching a rerun of an old movie, starring Michael Dukakis, who wouldn’t fight back, co-starring John Kerry, who wouldn’t fight back. Only two people in America have more baggage than Hillary Clinton, and she’s married to one of them and trying to succeed the other. She hammers Obama for his dealings with Tony Rezko, but he can’t find a way to mention that her brother, Hugh Rodham, made $400,000 in fees for lobbying for presidential pardons, including one for fugitive financier Marc Rich, who gave $70,000 to her Senate campaign.
I’m afraid that Obama wants the love more than he wants the presidency. And Hillary knows it. She’s tougher.
Back to the present: The latest poll in Indiana, conducted by Indianapolis-based TeleResearch Corp. for a local TV station, has Clinton ahead by 10 points, 48% to 38%, outside the poll’s 3% margin of error. This is a tracking poll, and Clinton’s lead grew throughout the polling period in late April. Her lead was built on a shift of white men–no doubt the bitter sort, clinging to God and guns–to Clinton. In North Carolina, Clinton has trimmed Obama’s once double-digit lead to seven points, 51% to 44%, according to a Research 2000 poll. And in Oregon, with three weeks to go until the primary, Obama’s lead has dwindled to six points, 50% to 44%. One thing about politics: It can frustrate you, it can depress you, but it seldom bores you. In the short space of two months, we have seen Obama go from almost unbeatable to almost unelectable. He is running out the clock–on himself.