On this day of sweeping post-mortems, I want to discuss a minor but mystifying element of the campaign that may soon be forgotten: the penchant of Clinton staffers to imitate comic book villains. Penn, Wolfson, Ickes, "anonymous Clinton strategist" -- they seemed all too willing to announce, in advance, tactics sure to strike any decent Democrat as immoral and any thinking one as futile.
Do you remember that scene from Austin Powers?
Dr. Evil: Scott, I want you to meet daddy's nemesis, Austin Powers.
Scott Evil: What? Are you feeding him? Why don't you just kill him?
Dr. Evil: I have an even better idea. I'm going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death.
The Clinton campaign never suspended Obama over a shark tank or tied him to the El tracks just before rush hour. But they surely made some dastardly threats.
• To pressure superdelegates to overturn the will of the voters.
• To poach pledged delegates.
• To attack Obama "kitchen-sink" style in Ohio.
• To demand full recognition of the flawed Florida and Michigan primaries.
• To contest the nomination on the floor of the convention.
These threats appeared ruthless, but were not so. All were shoot-the-moon underdog strategies that could have worked only if planned quietly, in ways the campaign might plausibly deny.
Let’s recall the situation. After the Potomac and Wisconsin primaries, Obama held a commanding lead in pledged delegates but was by no means assured the nomination. It was easy to predict that something like the Wright episode might burst forth, something noxious and media-driven with the potential to startle skittish superdelegates. Even trailing, Hillary would have her opportunities to strike.
Rather than make their pinky-sucking threats, Hillary’s aides should have feigned fair mindedness. Hillary could have acknowledged that she had underestimated the caucus states, embraced her underdog status, turned populist (as she did) and told Wolfson & company to pipe down about the backroom dealings (as she did not). This more skillful version of Hillary would have attacked Obama for inexperience without hinting that McCain would be better. Hit him just as she did – on experience, trade, electability – but without telegraphing the punches.
Meanwhile, in my quickly developing counterfactual scenario, seemingly neutral pundits and party leaders wonder aloud whether Obama is ready for the job. Bizarro Harold Ickes (that is, an Ickes who can control his temper and think strategically) asks superdelegates to wait until June 3 out of respect for the voters.
When Wright’s tirades go viral, Hillary refrains from piling on and, in the infamous Stephanopolis/Gibson debate, criticizes the media for its excess. In this scenario, the "upscale liberal" portion of Obama’s coalition fractures just a bit. Even some Kossaks are deceived by Hillary’s pretense of decency and decide that perhaps she is not so calculating after all, and probably more electable. As a result, Hillary wins Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania by wider margins and, critically, wins Indiana by seven. It’s May 6, and Tim Russert can’t quite say the race is over yet – Hillary is finishing strong.
Now, his powder dry, his timing impeccable, Bizarro Ickes suddenly pressures the superdelegates to overturn Obama’s pledged delegate lead, now down to 100 or so. Offering the Vice Presidency in secret, Hillary lures an Obama-supporting Senator (Bizarro Daschle or Bizzaro Stabenow) to renounce the fading upstart. Sharpton is promised a sinecure and swings back to the Clintons. The pundits go wild with speculation. Are we seeing another amazing Clinton come back? Is this Obama just like McGovern – too soft and brainy to win? Bill Nelson demands that the full Florida delegation be seated, providing cover for establishment Dems to abandon an Obama campaign now perceived as wounded. The final 200 finger-in-the-wind supers break for Hillary, and it’s over.
Unlikely? Yes, but at least possible. That’s how villains win in the real world – by pretending to be decent.
I don’t think Hillary is really a villain, at least no more so than other strong but flawed politicians who have helped move a progressive agenda forward. (LBJ comes to mind.) But like Blowfeld or the Joker, she’s got too much ego and too little tactical sense to win in the end.... at least when confronted with a hero who knows it’s action that saves the world, not process talk on conference calls.