On June 3, at the end of an epic contest, Democrats nominated Barack Obama as their presidential candidate rather than Hillary Clinton. Sixteen months ago, few would have predicted that a relatively unknown African-American senator would defeat the famous wife of the 42nd U.S. president. While many factors contributed to the outcome, the grueling campaign highlighted a critical difference between the candidates: Obama demonstrated better judgment than did Clinton.
Given Sen. Clinton’s lengthy experience in the public eye, it’s surprising that her decision-making was less astute than that of Obama. But this difference between them was obvious from the onset of the competition. Sen. Clinton ran as someone who had voted to give President Bush authority to invade Iraq, while Obama had opposed the war from the onset. Curiously, Clinton never apologized for her critical lapse in judgment.
Clinton’s campaign had three fatal strategic flaws. Because she was the heavy favorite, Clinton ran as the inevitable candidate rather than offer a compelling single reason why voters should choose her. When Obama became the proponent of change, this cast Clinton as an advocate of the status quo. The second flaw was that Clinton relied upon conventional fundraising, a relatively small number of large donors who would max out to her campaign; Obama used the Internet and developed a huge number of small donors who would contribute periodically. As a result, Obama raised more money than did Clinton. The third flaw was that Clinton assumed the election would be over by Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, and therefore her campaign did not pay proper attention to states such as Virginia whose primaries came later and she did not take caucus states seriously. Although experienced men and women surrounded Clinton, ultimately these flaws were the product of her faulty decision-making.
When Clinton got behind in the delegate battle, she adapted and reeled off victories in states such as Pennsylvania and her political persona changed into “Hillary the fighter.” While this transformation energized her campaign—and proved effective with blue-collar voters—it also produced a string of nasty attacks on Obama: Clinton slammed him for the statements of Reverend Wright, condemned his tangential association with former Weatherman Bill Ayers, and argued he was fatally inexperienced, that even Republican John McCain would do a better job as president. These tactics showed questionable judgment.
As it became obvious that Obama had an insurmountable delegate lead, Clinton’s campaign launched a two-pronged response. First, they suggested selection of the eventual Democratic nominee should not be based upon the number of delegates won, but rather on the total popular vote cast in the caucuses and primaries. There were three crucial problems with this line of reasoning: it ran counter to party rules; it included the flawed Michigan primary where Obama and other candidates honored an agreement to take their names off the ballot, whereas Clinton did not; and, it did not count certain caucus states.
The second response of the Clinton campaign to Obama’s impending win was to play the race card: Sen. Clinton and her surrogates suggested Obama was not electable because in the general election he would lose the votes of blue-collar workers, because he was black.
As the competition entered the final few weeks, Clinton lost a critical primary in North Carolina and it became apparent she had no chance of winning the nomination. When asked why she continued, Clinton responded she still hoped to convince Democratic super delegates to rally to her cause and quipped there were only a few weeks to go and “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June.” Many interpreted this as a suggestion that she remained in the race because of the likelihood Obama might be killed. While this outrageous comment was widely condemned, Clinton never apologized to Obama.
In the last days of the campaign, the Clinton campaign searched for reasons for their loss and chose to blame it on sexism. They condemned the media, Democratic Party officials, the Obama campaign, and even Sen. Obama himself. But an independent study indicated the media coverage was remarkably even-handed.
On the evening of June 3, after it was clear that Obama had garnered the Democratic nomination, Clinton spoke to her supporters and refused to concede. In defiant tones she said, “In the coming days, I’ll be consulting with supporters and party leaders to determine how to move forward with the best interests of our party and our country guiding the way.” As partisans chanted, “Denver, Denver”—an apparent suggestion that she should appeal the outcome in the August Democratic convention—Clinton asked them to e-mail her suggestions for her next course of action. Her speech lacked graciousness.
Some have criticized the 16-month-long Democratic nomination competition as taking too long and costing too much money. However one feels about this grueling process, it subjected both Clinton and Obama to a pressure-cooker environment that revealed their true character. Hillary Clinton had three serious flaws: an unwillingness to recognize mistakes; a refusal to apologize for errors; and a lack of civility. Ultimately, all of these derived from a fatal lack of judgment.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.