Inside Washington's Headlines

by Ken Feltman

Radnor Inc.

March 2008


Legislative insight

Political intelligence










Ken Feltman is Chairman of Radnor Inc., a political consulting and legislative relations firm in Washington, D.C. He is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists.




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Hillary: Alive in the back room

Hillary was so busy trying to prove she could be one of the boys....

- Maureen Dowd

As the Democratic Party's presidential nominating process proceeds to its messy conclusion, what happened yesterday in Texas and Ohio is less important than what now happens in the back room where deals are made. That gives the Republicans a chance to win in November. Wisconsin should have ended the suspense. But it did not. The math favored Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton hung on. The map favored Obama. All Clinton could do was to conclude her campaign gracefully.

She used words during the Austin debate that many interpreted to mean that she planned to be magnanimous. A noble exit would come after a campaign of heavy-handedness following false starts and bad decisions. It would allow her to run again in the future. But then she went on the attack. Even Clinton's exit was going to be conflicted. For most of her close associates, her collapse was inexplicable. Now, her possible resilience is as well. It need not be. One thing accounts for Clinton's ability to stay in the race:

The voters do not want to deliver the knockout punch. Clinton refused to go quietly. Obama could not wrap it up. The voters are not sure enough about Obama to want this ended. Older women especially are not ready to commit to Obama. Exit polls indicated that they decided late and voted for Clinton as a way to delay a final decision. Party regulars want it over. The media declared it over. But voters finally are beginning to examine Obama. In a sense, they need more time - and just in time, the media are asking Obama sharper questions.

Both Clinton and Obama had opportunities to win the nomination. Both failed. Now, the action shifts to the back room. Many things account for Clinton's failure to win the nomination weeks ago and Obama's inability to close it out last night. Those things mean that the Democrats' process may drag on till the Denver convention. Or perhaps the party leaders will twist Clinton's arm. That will be no easy task and the bloodshed will be splashed all over. One of them will win, but it is now likely to be an ugly win. The other will lose ugly and go away mad. The Republicans will love every tortured moment.

Obama's campaign is a little like a hot air balloon, drifting with the political currents. In a sense, those political winds and not the campaign have been in control. Last week, Obama hit a few patches of rough air. He abruptly concluded a press conference when the questions got tough. His campaign got involved in a flap with Canadian officials over the North American Free Trade Agreement. This happens to campaigns. But why has Clinton stumbled for so long? She is the ultimate control-freak.

Clinton's Republican-style campaign

  1. Against all precedent, Clinton ran a "Republican-style" campaign for the Democratic nomination. She latched onto experience as her theme. How many times did she need to be reminded that Republicans value experience? Democrats prize change. She tried to position herself as the inevitable nominee. Republicans gravitate to the candidate who has paid his or her dues and can make the best claim that it is his or her turn to be the nominee. Democrats flock to the most engaging sage.

  2. Too soon, Clinton moved to the center in anticipation of the general election. Obama claimed the left. The left may not be where the general election voters are. But it is where the Democratic Party's primary election voters are.

  3. Clinton cannot adjust. Months ago, I cautioned that the intransigence that marked Clinton's healthcare reform effort could doom her campaign. Clinton planned an orderly nomination process culminating on Super Tuesday and budgeted accordingly. So sure was she of sewing up the nomination early that she did not even file a full slate of delegates in Pennsylvania. It is almost eerie: Once she starts down a path, she seems compelled to continue, no matter what.

    This shows up in her inability to make decisions. Her campaign never really decided on a theme, a slogan or a song. Instead, it had several of each. Why? According to insiders, Clinton deferred (but did not delegate) those decisions because she was occupied with the grand plan. It is good to know that about a presidential candidate and Clinton has taught us that lesson.

  4. She spent buckets of money on headquarters staff but was stingy in caucus states. Obama piled up delegates in caucus states.

  5. Aside from the national leadership, most Democrats are happy to be part of a disorderly party. They claim that they want to nominate the candidate with the best chance to win. Then they indulge their left-fringe yearnings. This year, they are close to nominating someone with the most liberal voting record in the Senate (Obama has that distinction according to the respected National Journal).

    The Republicans have their right-fringe counterparts but they tend to make noise rather than help decide the nominee. The Democrats suffer the curse of a fringe that wants to help.

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  6. Clinton started as the leader of a potential crusade of beleaguered working mothers and struggling middle-class women. She could not hold that base in Wisconsin, which has a cohort of women who should have loved Clinton's message. But many of them loved Obama's mysticism more.

    Obama is just easier to like. He seems to speak to each and every voter. Women appreciate that.

    It can be argued that women's suffrage was deferred for nearly a century in the U.S. because many of its early advocates became soldiers in the cause of abolition. The same women who were active in the nascent suffrage movement in the third and fourth decades of the 19th century gravitated to the abolitionist movement. Is there a parallel in the campaigns of Obama and Clinton? Women found Clinton's campaign as a proud step. But Obama's campaign was an affirmation of essential human equality, transcending any one woman and affecting all humanity. Beyond that, there is something more to Obama's appeal (and Clinton's lack of appeal).

    He has what columnist Maureen Dowd calls "his inner chick."

    The rules favor an outsider

  7. The delegate selection rules worked in Obama's favor. The left wing of the Democratic Party has had little success in electing presidents. Remember Gene McCarthy and George McGovern? But the left wing long ago succeeded in changing the rules of delegate selection.

    During the traumatic 1968 Convention, a commission was created to reform the nominating process. Senator George McGovern of South Dakota chaired the Commission, which reduced the role of party officials and increased the role of state caucuses and primaries. The commission also mandated quotas for blacks, women, and young Democrats.

    McGovern was the first beneficiary of the new rules. He was nominated in 1972. By November, McGovern's anti-Vietnam War stance, pro-choice leanings and softness on drugs was summed up as support for "amnesty, abortion and acid." He won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in the general election.

    Amnesty, abortion and acid

    Who came up with that phrase, which got pinned on George McGovern during the 1972 presidential campaign? McGovern always wanted to find out. All he knew was that it was a Democratic senator.

    McGovern's original running mate was former Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton. He was dropped from the 1972 ticket when his history of electric-shock treatments became public.

    In 2007, a few months after Eagleton died, political columnist Bob Novak revealed that Eagleton was the source of ?amnesty, abortion and acid.? Eagleton made the comment two and a half months before McGovern selected him.

    Super-delegates were created after the 1980 election to restore some of the power of the party regulars. The super-delegates theoretically could deliver the nomination to Clinton or to Obama. That is the back room battleground. But Obama realized that possibility weeks ago and his supporters began to talk of smoke-filled rooms and party bosses. This made it less likely that the super-delegates would unite behind Clinton. To do so could fracture the party. Beside, day by day, super-delegates abandoned Clinton for Obama.

    The race card was not a trump card

  8. The Clintons were clumsy in their use of the race card. It did not work. Months ago, I wrote that voters would expect the commander-in-chief to control her husband. Hillary Clinton did not. Was it because she could not or because she did not want to? The backlash cost Clinton delegates and votes. Almost immediately, political researchers found that left wing Democrats said they would rather vote for the first African-American with a chance to win the presidency than this particular first woman. Black voters realized that Obama could win. Among liberal white women, the chance to vote for an African-American was suddenly more appealing than the prospect of the first woman president. Among black women who had originally supported Clinton, race trumped sisterhood. There went Clinton's female firewall.

    Clinton's demands that the Florida and Michigan delegations be allowed to vote at the convention only underscored the tough male cravenness of her bend-the-rules mentality. The Clintons argued publicly that super-delegates should feel free to ignore the wishes of the voters back home. Obama made certain that the super-delegates knew they could hurt the whole party if they voted against their districts or states. Soon, with the help of the media, the voters wondered whether the Clintons would stoop to anything.

    The Clintons' desperate strategy drove voters and super-delegates to Obama. What better example could Obama have of "old-style Washington politics" than the use of super-delegates to nullify the will of the voters? Soon it was clear that if the Clintons pursued this strategy, the party could melt down. Hillary Clinton backed off, at least for a few days.

    The media were not objective

  9. The media were shamelessly partisan. Many of their reporters and commentators were quoted by other journalists saying how hard it was to remain objective about Obama. True, Obama has rock star appeal. He attracts groupies. Some reporters kept a "swoon-o-meter" to count how many women swooned and fainted at Obama rallies.

    At a Texas campaign event, 17,000 people crowded into an arena and cheered and applauded when Obama blew his nose. When a Chicago public radio station did a spoof on Obama supporters, comparing them to Scientologists, the station received over a thousand protesting emails. The host of the offending program said that the angry emails could best be compared with the emails sent in by Scientologists when the station spoofed Scientology. Messianic and recalling President John Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and any one of a number of televangelists, Obama has transcended politics and even the issues of the campaign. He seems above it, like a meditating guru come down from his Himalayan perch. To even mention mundane issues is to lob a tennis ball right in front of him.

    Obama puts it away with a quick stroke: "We are the change." How could Clinton beat that?

  10. The tenth and most important reason for Clinton's collapse is a little sad. If it is not her intransigence (which comes through in a few of the reasons listed above) or her husband, then what is it? Consider this:

    She ran not so much to the left or to the right. She ran to the boys' locker room and suited up. She thought she had to be one of the boys to compete with the boys. We are told that she worried about being manly without being macho. Many of the women who were inclined to support Clinton think that's yesterday's battle. By even worrying about it, Clinton put herself in a time gone by, fighting a battle that she did not need to fight in this time.

    She could have built upon the progress that women have made. Instead, she seemed to retrace the steps. Meantime, Obama adopted words and phrases than gave voters, especially women, the belief that he would not be Rambo loosed upon the world.

In Obama, women found someone who spoke to them in today's reality. He did not fake it. He did not condescend. It came naturally. Can he continue or has he come to the point where rhetoric without specifics will not work?

In Obama, women thought they found what they were looking for. Then, in Texas and Ohio, they decided to take one last look. Amazingly, Clinton is still alive. And because of that, so is John McCain.


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