The Democratic race keeps tightening, and now CNN reports that Obama has caught up with Clinton in New Hampshire. Most Democratic voters still consider Hillary the most "electable" of all the candidates. But tellingly, CNN reports that "Obama is seen as more likable, more believable and more likely to unite the country." The momentum seems to be turning against Sen. Clinton - but she could turn that around.
There are three possible outcomes to Sen. Clinton's primary campaign: 1) She wins in a way that leaves her well-positioned for the general campaign; 2) She wins, but is in a weak position to take on the GOP candidate; or, 3) she loses.
The primary campaign is clearly changing rapidly. As of now, however, the likeliest outcome appears to be #2, followed by #3. Clinton's "above the fray" approach didn't work. And while her decision to engage Obama made sense, she appeared to do it it ungracefully (preceding an explicit attack on his character with her comment that this is "the fun part").
Worst of all, her emphasis on centrist "triangulation" is backfiring. It alienates some Democrats who want to support her, provides ammunition for her primary opponents, and seems to be convincing the general public of that so-called "Republican talking point" - that she'll do or say anything to win. Triangulation may have been a smart strategy in 1996, but in a country where 71% of voters oppose the war it's a liability.
So can she turn the campaign around and regain the momentum that now seems to be working against her? Probably, if she changes some of her core strategic assumptions. Here are some things that might make a difference:
Drop the 'Anti-Idealism' Tactic
As we wrote recently, her campaign seems to have decided it makes sense to attack her opponents (mostly Obama, but presumably Edwards too) by attacking the Democratic base itself as "self-righteous," "naive," and addicted to "beautiful loserdom."
Bad move. Drop the "Cynicism is Good" rhetoric and try to harness the idealism of core Democrats instead of fighting it. How?
Make Bill Her 'Idealism Ambassador'
Nobody in American politics speaks the language of idealism better than her most underused campaign resource, Bill. It's understandable that she wants to limit Bill's exposure in order to reinforce her own brand, but it's time to use the big guy more effectively.
By having Bill speak to the idealism of Democrats - and Americans as a whole - he can play to his greatest rhetorical strength and evoke memories of his Presidency. Ironically, he'd also be fulfilling the traditional "spouse" role, but at a new and higher level.
Take On Global Warming
Al Gore has just accepted his Nobel Prize. Most Americans believe that global warming exists, and many are in a state of numb existential despair that it will be solved in time to save the planet. So why not make climate change and the environment a core theme? She could apply that "experience" theme to a vast problem, telling voters she's the only one with the skills and knowledge to address it.
Interestingly, she could also use climate change as a 'triangulating' issue by reaching out to 'crunchy conservatives' and evangelicals looking to act as God's stewards of the environment. That would be one hell of a smart way to bring liberals and conservatives together on this critical issue.
Return to Campaign Reform
Early in her campaign Sen. Clinton ,said she would press for publicly-funded elections once she became President. She should return to this theme and hit it hard. Instead of attacking them personally when Obama and Edwards attack her for taking lobbying money, she should ask them if they will join her in pushing for federally-funded national elections.
If they say no, she has outflanked them. If they say yes, she has demonstrated greater leadership on this issue. She can't lose.
Tell More Jokes
It seems ridiculous to have to say this, but she does seem too serious. Voters may be afraid that her Presidency will seem grim and purposeful, without the joyful and inspirational qualities that are part of the President's job as national morale-booster. Have more fun, or seem to, and make it more fun to follow her campaign. The "Sopranos" video was really good. She needs more gestures like that.
Defend Social Security
One area where Clinton clearly seems more progressive and 'Democratic" than Obama is in Social Security reform. Obama's position is hard to defend on substance, and seems to play into GOP talking points. So press the point, by making herself the "defender of Social Security and older Americans."
But take the high road. Those "character" comments only backfire.
Emphasize Her Team's Bench Strength
She's got some strong people behind her. Make some of them more visible, through joint appearances. Sharing a podium or two with Wes Clark, for example, will tell voters that she can bring some smart and experienced people back into leadership roles should she become President.
Share Her Aspirations
Somehow the voters have gotten the impression, rightly or wrongly, that her campaign is based on solely on the pursuit of power. Let people know why she wants to be President. What are her dreams? Her goals? Her deepest motivations?
People don't know what drives her, and until they do those negative perceptions will continue to fester and grow. So why not go on Larry King and tell people why she's willing to go through all the travails and torture of a Presidential campaign one more time?
She would also need to stake a clear and unequivocal position on winding down the Iraq war and ensuring there are no unprovoked attacks on Iran.
Of course, it remains to be seen if she'll make any of these moves. But if she did, her campaign for the nomination might once again seem unstoppable.
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