On Friday, the Clinton campaign released a new ad, aimed at bolstering questions about Obama's readiness to lead. The ad was an iteration of Walter Mondale's famous "Red Phone" commercial, questioning who the American people should want answering the White House phone at 3 in the morning.
The ad was not particularly well-executed, but was controversial enough to earn plenty of free media, and for good reason. Though she has convinced the bulk of the Democratic party that she has more experience than Barack Obama, Hillary's argument has often been vague, focused on abstract messages like "ready on day one" without concrete examples of what that would mean or look like. Hillary chose to own the experience narrative, but failed to communicate why experience actually mattered. This new ad, five days before her potential last stand, may well be her strongest attempt.
Yet one wonders why this line of campaigning took so long to pursue. Having spent more than four months failing to connect with voters on the experience argument, the Clinton campaign should have either switched messages or done a better job of articulating their current one. They should have recognized that voters did not have a base of knowledge from which to evaluate what kind of experience would really be necessary for the presidency. Voters needed real examples, a more complete understanding of why Hillary's background would make her more capable.
When her campaign did make those arguments, they were often veiled in ambiguity, and targeting the wrong issues. On health care, for example, Hillary argued that she was more likely to pass reforms based on her failed experience in the 1990s. This was an odd formulation: Vote for me because I've already failed.
The experience argument was clearly flawed from the beginning. Having ceded the "change" moniker to Obama, Clinton spent most of the campaign winning the losing side of the argument. But beyond its inherit flaws, its implementation has been particularly subpar. Friday's ad is the first sign that her strategy is being recalibrated, though it is likely far too little, far too late.
Instead, Hillary's "red phone" ad will become emblematic of one of the most serious flaws of her campaign's tactics: a chronic slowness to respond and revaluate.
Contrasting Obama and Hillary on this particular issue demonstrates the disparity well. Having spent the entirety of her campaign delivering a failing message, it took until February 29th to refocus her otherwise abstract message. But less than eight hours after the ad's release, sensing its potential strength, the Obama campaign released their own response ad, arguing their broader narrative about the importance of judgment. It took five months for the Clinton ship to change direction. With flexibility and confidence, Obama's team responded almost instantly.
Her slowness of response was not isolated, and has been evident through much of the campaign. Despite any evidence that an admission of error on her Iraq war vote would be harmful, Clinton spent the campaign constantly grilled as to why she wouldn't admit her mistake. Though she was willing to offer that she wouldn't have authorized the war today, she was consistently unwilling to critique her original decision. Especially in 2007, when the Iraq war was the top concern for Democratic primary voters, the nuance of her answer caused her to be painted as the least anti-war of the bunch, despite sharing the same voting record as three other candidates. On this issue, the Clinton ship was finally righted at last Tuesday's debate, when for the first time, Hillary admitted she wished she could have that vote back. Again, with only a week before Ohio and Texas, her answer was likely far too little, far too late.
Even on personal finances, her campaign has failed to act rapidly. Though the Obama campaign has been hammering Clinton for her failure to release her tax returns, Clinton seemed truly unprepared for a question about the issue at Tuesday's debate. Could her campaign really not have anticipated the question?
Months before, Hillary's answer at the Philadelphia debate became a major turning point in the race. Asked about her stance on driver's licenses for undocumented workers, Hillary offered at least four different answers, an event that became central to the Obama and Edwards arguments, and pivotal in her Iowa loss. But rather than provide clarification immediately, the Clinton campaign allowed the story to drag on. Their first response, the day following, helped fuel the argument that Hillary was participating in political gymnastics: "Senator Clinton supports governors like Governor Spitzer who believe they need such a measure to deal with the crisis caused by this administration's failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform." By the time she finally clarified her opposition to the driver's licenses, it was far too little, far too late.
There will no doubt be many ironies that arise out of the 2008 race; perhaps the most poignant is that, in a political family that gave birth to the rapid response campaign war room, Hillary's demise will be, at least in part, the result of a failure to respond with speed.