By Michael Gerson*
Friday, February 15, 2008; Page A21
Those clanking, sputtering and grinding sounds you hear are coming from the Clinton political machine.
Our fundraising, it argues, has never been stronger -- though it is about half of Barack Obama's. Our strategy has assumed these minor setbacks all along -- though senior campaign leadership must be shown the door. Our successes will come in "Ohio and Texas because we know that those are states where they represent the broad electorate in this country" (Hillary Clinton's words) -- which is hardly a valentine to Missouri, Virginia, Minnesota, Colorado and other parts of the nation Clinton must view as flyover territory.
But Clinton's largest problem is not a lack of money or public enthusiasm. It is the lack of a compelling narrative for her campaign.
Most successful presidential runs eventually have an overarching theory: the generational ambitions of John Kennedy's "New Frontier," the rising cultural resentments of Richard Nixon's "Silent Majority," the reviving national confidence of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America."
Obama's appeal is straightforward: getting beyond "the ideological battles that have consumed us for the last 20 years" -- in which Clinton and her husband have been two of the main combatants.
Hillary Clinton's attempt to define a narrative of her own has been hobbled because her campaign is defined by the rejection of rhetoric. Obama's eloquence and idealism are dismissed as "abstract" and a "fairy tale" in contrast to Clinton's experience and policy substance. It is difficult for a campaign to inspire while using "inspiration" as an epithet.
This theory has other drawbacks. As a lawyer, first lady and senator, Clinton has had little actual experience running anything -- except for a White House health-care policy process that was a spectacle of arrogance and ineffectiveness. And on a purely political level, this argument for experience comes at an odd time, when Americans are generally disillusioned with both Democrats and Republicans in Washington.
The challenge for Clinton is that her other options -- the other narratives for her campaign -- are equally flawed:
First, there is Hillary the Fighter. In recent interviews, Clinton has come out swinging with negative attacks -- what she once referred to as "the fun part" of politics. Obama has "questions to answer about his dealings with . . . a big nuclear power company" as well as with "Mr. Rezko." But it is hard to imagine American voters thinking: "If only the Clintons were a little more ruthless, I'd finally support them." It is this very trait -- after a series of racially charged attacks -- that many Americans, including many liberals, found more repulsive than "fun."
Second, there is Hillary the Comeback Kid. One campaign official commented, "We're taking a long-term approach to the campaign and look at it as a delegate game. This is not like the playoffs, where if you don't win you don't advance." No -- my mistake -- that was not a Clinton official, it was Rudy Giuliani's campaign manager speaking last year. Giuliani tried -- as Clinton is trying -- to disprove an iron rule of politics: When you lose a lot, you eventually look like a loser.
Third, there is Hillary the Tested. "I've been examined one side up and the other side down," argues Clinton, while Obama has not. Well, it is true that the Clintons have been endlessly vetted -- but mainly because their shared career has been an endless string of scandals. Stuart Taylor of the National Journal recently took a depressing stroll back through the derelict funfair of the Clinton years: the deceptions about Gennifer and Monica, the Travelgate firings, the prosperous trade in cattle futures, the questionable transactions of Castle Grande, the strange case of the misplaced billing records. In the midst of these colorful controversies, Taylor observes, Clinton has developed "a bad reputation for truthfulness and veracity."
It is not enough to be vetted. The goal is to be vetted and found clean.
Though it is increasingly unlikely, Clinton may still have a path to the nomination -- and what a path it is. She merely has to puncture the balloon of Democratic idealism; sully the character of a good man; feed racial tensions within her party; then eke out a win with the support of unelected superdelegates, thwarting the hopes of millions of new voters who would see an inspiring young man defeated by backroom arm-twisting and arcane party rules.
Unlikely -- but it would be a fitting contribution to the Clinton legacy of monumental selfishness.
*Michael Gerson has worked in 5 administrations, Republican and Democratic, including Bill Clinton's. He is the author of "Eyewitness To Power", an excellent book, which I recommend.