2008: Sleepless Hillary
Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion.
- Kurt Vonnegut
In mid-December, as Senator Hillary Clinton slogged through snow to campaign in Iowa, a reporter sensed her exhaustion. He went up to former President Clinton, who was campaigning with his wife that day, and talked about how enervating campaigning can be. Then he asked what the Clintons do when they have a little downtime.
"Sometimes we're just sleeping because we?re so tired," the former president answered.
That candid admission tells a lot about Hillary Clinton's current troubles. The woman is tired. Her performance betrays her exhaustion.
Years ago, as Hillary Clinton worked to deflect and derail the controversies and scandals of the 1992 campaign and the early days of her husband?s presidency, I talked with one of her aides. She said that one difficult task for staff was to make sure the First Lady got enough rest. She confided that Mrs. Clinton did not concentrate and make sound decisions when she was tired. Instead, she snapped at people and became petty and vindictive in her response to criticism, real or perceived. Apparently, when tired, Mrs. Clinton compounded problems because she refused to listen to anyone else and thrashed around, striking out at everyone, including those who were trying to help her.
In November, Ken Feltman wrote that Benizar Bhutto seemed likely to become prime minister of Pakistan once again. An assassin has put an end to that possibility.
Asked to comment, Feltman told National Public Radio that, "Not since Sarajevo in 1914 has a foreign assassination been so ominous for the U.S. This brutal murder in Rawalpindi may come to affect the whole world."
Lawyers on the front line? - Bhutto's return to Pakistan
In November I wrote: "Will Clinton make errors and let another Democrat back in the race?
"Clinton hurt herself (in the October 31 debate in Philadelphia). She did not give crisp and clear answers to questions. Yes, she was attacked by a gang of male candidates and overnight polls showed that voters did not appreciate the tactics of the attackers. Still, Clinton should have been prepared. She was warned that the attacks were coming but she seemed unready. Clinton lost her smile and her sense of humor. It was her worst night of the campaign. She will survive unless she repeats this poor showing."
Her own lethal enemy
"She is her own worst enemy - perhaps she is her only lethal enemy among the Democratic candidates. Perhaps only if she makes a series of mistakes can Clinton be stopped."
So we know that when Hillary Clinton tires, she tends to strike out at those around her. This may have been the situation with the October debate. According to a Clinton campaign staff member that I have spoken with, the campaign tried to get Senator Clinton to focus on the evening's debate and the likely questions, including the proposal by New York State's governor to authorize drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants. They had a focus-group tested response ready.
But Senator Clinton was testy and annoyed. She barked out critical comments about key members of the campaign staff and her opponents. She harped on perceived slights by past supporters of her husband who had not come forward to support her campaign. Later that evening, she blew the drivers? license question and things started to unravel.
Barack Obama gave pretty much the same answer to the licenses-for-illegals question. But all the heat was on Hillary. Her poor performance provided the media and the other candidates an opportunity to reexamine the whole premise of her campaign: She was best qualified because of the experience gained during the eight years of her husband?s presidency plus her own seven years in the Senate.
Senator Clinton's continued tiredness has only increased as the pressure on her has increased since that October debate. In Iowa just before Christmas, her airplane was grounded by a storm and she had to travel through much of the night by car to make morning campaign appearances. She slept only fitfully at best. Her morning appearances went badly as she dragged and showed irritation. Her staff tried to get her to nap before a luncheon. She got angry and refused. A major right-of-center website ran a picture of Senator Clinton looking haggard, with this caption: The Toll of a Campaign.
An annoying laugh
Then Clinton started to laugh. Forced and intrusive, the laugh may have been a way to buy time and fight through the tiredness. Her laugh was analyzed by talk show hosts and pundits. Is it the equivalent of Howard Dean's scream, some asked? The laugh went away but the damage remained.
Next, a conservative talk show host commented on Senator Clinton's appearance and pretty soon her age and testiness were the main topics on other talk television and radio stations. Even an Australian newspaper ran a picture of a drawn Clinton and asked whether the world was ready to watch her age in office. The media reported that Clinton was in trouble. What is really happening?
Is Clinton falling while Barack Obama surges? Is this merely the typical last-look shifting in Iowa and New Hampshire that sometimes confuses pollsters, the news media and even the campaigns? Obama appears to have made significant progress: A net gain of about 10 percentage points in Iowa and 17 in New Hampshire. Nationally, the change since the infamous October debate is not significant and Obama has gained only five points since Labor Day.
Clearly, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have little in common except that they are being subjected to the almost mind-numbing campaign. The people of these two states have been exposed to thousands of ads and news reports about the candidates. Many have met one or more of the candidates. The campaigns and the candidates, with their comings and goings, are the constant background noise in their lives.
This crazy way to select a president seems to work at some level. How would we ever have known that Hillary Clinton may not withstand pressure well? All her political life has been packed with pressure. But the people of Iowa and New Hampshire have taken the measure of the candidates at their best and at their worst. They have learned some things and made decisions. Perhaps some of them have concluded that the more they came to know Hillary Clinton, the less they liked her. The more they got to know Barack Obama, the more they liked him.
To understand how the candidates may be perceived in Iowa and New Hampshire, look at one aspect of the campaigns: The visions projected by the candidates.
Clinton is stressing her experience. In fact, she seems to be appropriating her husband?s record. Obama is stressing change. Subtly, Obama asks whether voters want to continue the Bush-Clinton-Bush cycle and suggests that it is time to move on. Clinton answers with heavy-handed attacks. Her husband follows up her attacks. In late December, at Hillary?s urging, her campaign launched websites attacking Obama.
In stressing experience, Clinton is stressing a vision that core Democrats reject. Core Democrats are for change. It is Republicans who are for experience and continuity. Obama is more in tune with the Democrats who will decide the nomination. Clinton, if she gets the nomination, will be better positioned for the November election.
Did Clinton start her general election campaign too soon? Did she assume her nomination and move too quickly to issues positions that will help her win next November? Perhaps we have her answer to those questions: In campaign statements, Clinton has started to stress both experience and change.
While Clinton and Obama fight, John Edwards seems to be consolidating support in Iowa. He may pull off a surprise. He and John McCain on the Republican side seem to gain while they are out of the spotlight. What does that tell us about the price candidates pay for being frontrunners?
A woman's disadvantage?
According to Democratic and Republican sources that are usually in the know, Clinton is still the frontrunner and likely nominee. But she has been beaten up a bit and has not handled things well. We have seen this happen before. The most dedicated party workers almost always give the leading candidate a thumping somewhere along the line, just to let that candidate know that the voters still have a say in things. Clinton has now been thumped. Is that it?
Perhaps Clinton is at a disadvantage because she is a woman, one of her long-time woman friends recently suggested to me.
This woman has been a political consultant to dozens of candidates of both sexes. She has concluded that, as candidates, women have the need, deep down, to attend to every aspect of their campaign, including going negative against the opponent. Male candidates are willing to entrust the dirty work to others, she said.
Is it true, I wondered? I thought back over the women candidates I have worked with. I was unable to conclude anything. "Men miss it every time," she laughed. "But it's there all the same. I suppose women miss things about men as candidates that you spot every time."
She concluded by saying that little girls learn that if they want something done right, they need to do it themselves. ?We are conditioned to expect that men and other women, too, may let us down,? she said. ?So we do it ourselves and save nagging.?
I checked out this theory with other women political consultants. Often, they smiled knowingly and nodded. "Hillary can't help herself. She's trapped because she's a woman and reacts like a woman," said one Republican. "I may not like it but I understand and have seen it often enough to watch out for it," said a Democrat. "There may not be a fix for it," said another Republican.
Actually, there may be a fix. I realize that Hillary will probably read this. I consider her a friend and want to pass on a thought.
Get more sleep - especially if you become president.
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