February 21, 2008

It's Not Messaging

The Hillary Clinton campaign has cracks that have begun widening as the pressure increases for her to win a state. The Los Angeles Times reports on cracks at the very top as Hillary's top aides battled over messaging. In the end, Mark Penn won -- and Hillary kept losing:

Before the Iowa caucuses, senior aides to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton fell into a heated argument during a 7:30 a.m. conference call about the basic message their candidate was delivering to voters.

Mark Penn, chief strategist and pollster, liked Clinton's emphasis on her "strength and experience," and he defended the idea of her running as a quasi-incumbent best suited for the presidency. Harold Ickes and other advisors said that message was not working. A more promising strategy, they argued, would be to focus on the historic prospect of electing the first woman president.

Today, as Clinton tries to revive her campaign after losing 10 straight primary contests to Sen. Barack Obama, some insiders look back and wish that argument had produced a different outcome. Penn won the debate, say two people aware of the conversation, and Clinton went on to present herself to voters as a steely figure so familiar with the workings of government that she could lead from Day One.

The Clinton campaign now seems in peril, its precarious situation acknowledged on Wednesday even by former President Bill Clinton, who suggested that his wife could not survive a loss in either of the next two major contests, in Texas and Ohio on March 4.

This argument misses the point. The Clinton campaign has used both messages, and neither one has worked. The identity politics of gender simply couldn't beat the identity politics of race, even with the efforts of Bill Clinton to marginalize Obama as the black candidate after South Carolina. Obama's appeal transcends race, probably because Obama has steered clear of using identity politics himself.

The experience message doesn't convince anyone either, mostly because Hillary doesn't have it. She has four more years in the Senate than Obama, but she has about the same nonexistent record of legislative accomplishment as he does. She wants to claim the Clinton administration as experience, but other than the failed Health Care Task Force that tried to nationalize the health-care industry, she didn't do anything more than be married to the President. As Chris Rock joked, Mrs. Rock isn't qualified to be a stand-up comedian, and no one would fly on a plane piloted by the captain's untrained spouse.

Neither Mark Penn nor Harold Ickes, nor any of the rest of Bill Clinton's horses and men, can make Hillary into a good candidate. She's not terrible on the stump, but relentlessly mediocre. She smirks, her voice grates, and she says nothing compelling. Obama has a story to tell, and he tells it remarkably well; she has nothing to compete with it, other than being married to Bill.

The best messaging cannot rescue Hillary from her own mediocrity. Penn got her elected to the Senate in 2000, but had she faced off against Rudy Giuliani, she wouldn't be here today.

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