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Clinton’s Last Stand

PUBLISHED: February 27, 2008

Brian Williams wasn’t kidding when he talked about the snowstorm. The weather in Cleveland Tuesday night was just as well suited to a Browns playoff game, complete with hordes of enthusiasts nearly tailgating outside Cleveland State University’s Wolstein Center. They brandished signs, chanted, banged drums, and argued with each other about the relative merits of their preferred candidate. “She has thirty-five years of experience,” one college kid said to another in one such exchange. “But what,” said the other, “does that experience amount to?”

The pundits, meanwhile, were asking what Hillary Clinton’s campaign itself had amounted to, and some were already declaring this debate her “last stand.” As I left my house, The Drudge Report headlined with Clinton’s “fade,” picturing the New York Senator with a scream face more Home Alone than Edward Munch. Sentiments in the debate crowd were similar. A woman sitting near me observed, “This is her last chance, and I never would have thought that six months ago.” Senator John Glenn, Clinton supporter and superdelegate, remarked to an autograph-seeker that his endorsee needed to keep doing what she was doing. But the crowd, estimated between 1,600 and 1,900 people, seemed anxious for Clinton to do something more.

From where I sat–close enough to see the stigmata appear in Barack Obama’s palms–she didn’t do enough. Just after making a compelling and detailed case for her own universal health care plan, Clinton deflated her success with her protest that “in the last few debates I seem to get the first question all the time.” The crowd murmured, even as she added that “I don’t mind.” “What is she doing?” a man whispered to his wife. “She sounds defensive,” one woman remarked during the first commercial break, even when, as I heard another say, “she seems more in command up there.”

When Clinton seemed in command, her exacting attention to detail–the result of those thirty-five years of service she and her supporters tout–distinguished her. But she also made herself look silly, fretting over other details, as when she insisted that Obama ought to “reject” Louis Farrakhan’s support rather than merely to “denounce” him. The crowd snickered at Clinton’s distinction, then applauded (despite requests from Williams and Tim Russert that we restrain ourselves) Obama’s reply, something about the sort of pedantry up with which he would not put. (It has been interesting to read the differing reports of this moment in the blogosphere. From the arena floor it was decidedly a point for Obama.)

Thus Clinton’s conundrum: as much as some pundits–and even Clinton herself–have characterized the campaign as a matter of style vs. substance, Senator Obama has increasingly demonstrated substantive command to bolster the gloss of his campaign. Senator Clinton, to borrow a phrase from her fellow New Yorker, is “liked, but not well liked.” And varied responses to Obama’s success (did I hear Chris Matthews call them “mood swings”?), from “honored” to outraged to sarcastic, have not helped.

Instead, the campaign that once seemed an impeccable election machine now reads as ill-prepared for this extended endgame, dissenting and disorganized. Despite her apparent expertise in the prose of governance, Clinton has failed to sound a consistent voice in the poetry of campaigning. Viewers, as a result, have turned to those disparate moments of emotion–tears in New Hampshire, indignation in Ohio–and come up empty.

Yet Obama, for all the talk of his cult of personality, can seem cool to the point of being aloof. He does not seem to thrive on campaigning either, in the way that Bill Clinton so famously did and does. And it was Hillary Clinton, after all, who lingered on stage signing autographs after Obama had departed. It’s an oversimplification, to be sure, but an interesting dynamic to discuss as you gather around the Kool-Aid pitcher.

It’s too convenient, as well, to suggest that Clinton might have stuck around with the bittersweet relish of the precious few such moments remaining in her campaign. Ohio and Texas are still a week away, and the Convention in August seems, from here, like a summer fantasy. But walking out of the arena, past the dwindling crowds dispersed by the snow and cold, you had to wonder.

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