• U.S.

How the Front Runners Lost Their Edge

5 minute read
Joe Klein

In the beginning, Hillary Clinton and John McCain were the front runners in the 2008 presidential campaign, and it was good. Two strong, colorful candidates. What could be better? That was a few months ago–pre-surge, pre-Obama. In the party of primogeniture, the 70-year-old McCain was next in line for the throne. He was, and still is, scarfing up the fund raisers, pols and operatives who represent the beating heart of the Republican Party. And Hillary was … Hillary. No last name necessary. It was an article of faith that because of money and marriage, the junior Senator from New York had it locked up. It still is an article of faith among right-wing talk-show hosts, who tend to believe in their wildest fantasies. “She’s got it locked up, right?” Sean Hannity said to Dick Morris during a radio smarm-athon a few weeks ago. Of course, Morris agreed, juicily, but “wait till people see that she’s an even bigger flip-flopper than John Kerry.”

The odd thing about this conversation is how irrelevant it seemed. For one thing, no one with any sense still believes that Clinton–or McCain, for that matter–has the nomination locked up. And flip-flopping? Wasn’t that the last election? So imagine my surprise to learn, in the New York Times, that Clinton was thinking right along with Morris, that she was really, really worried that if she admitted that her vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, she could be accused of being a flip-flopper. “She is in a box now … but she doesn’t want to be in a different, even worse box–the vacillating, flip- flopping Democratic candidate [who] went down to defeat in 2000 and ’04,” said one of the Senator’s apparently limitless supply of advisers. “She wants to maintain a firmness … That’s what people will want in 2008.”

No, they won’t. Most voters don’t care if Hillary Clinton says “I was wrong” about Iraq. They know she was wrong, and they sense she regrets it. After all, she’s against the surge and for a phased withdrawal. She knows more about national-security issues than most of her Democratic opponents do, and when she talks about what to do in Iraq, she makes sense. That should be all that matters. But there are about 873 people on the left edge of the Democratic Party, plus assorted anti-Clinton consultant trolls like Morris, who want to torment her over this. And she, inexplicably, is allowing herself to be tormented. One would think that after six stubborn years of George W. Bush, Clinton would realize there is a bull market for candidates who can admit, and learn from, mistakes. When John Edwards simply said “I was wrong” about Iraq on Meet the Press a few weeks ago, it seemed to defuse even Tim Russert, who can flog a flip-flop better than anyone else.

Clinton’s sclerotic firmness may be chronic, a consequence of the sort of campaign she appears to be running–which is to say, the sort of campaign in which you put a ravening horde of consultants in a room and have them discuss whether you should say “I was wrong” about Iraq instead of making up your own mind and speaking the obvious truth. In other words, she’s running against the Kerry campaign by imitating the Kerry campaign. She’s fighting the last war.

John McCain, weirdly, seems to be doing much the same thing–thinking tactically, not strategically, looking backward, not forward. In McCain’s case, he’s running against … John McCain, vintage 2000, a terrific candidate who spoke his mind and was, I suspect, eight years ahead of his time. Much has been written about whether McCain’s stubborn support of the war is weighing him down this time. I don’t think so. He really believes in his position on Iraq. He has favored more troops since the beginning; he was one of the very first Republicans to criticize Donald Rumsfeld. He could get away with this hawkishness–perhaps even be celebrated for it–if he were still the McCain of 2000. But now he’s the guy who, yes, flip-flopped on Bush’s tax cuts, voting against them in 2001 and for extending them last year. He’s the guy who used to criticize telecharlatans like Jerry Falwell, and now he’s snuggling up to them. People may assume he’s playing some sort of Iraq game too. There is a difference between flip-flopping and admitting a mistake. You flip-flop for political advantage. You admit a mistake despite the political peril. McCain did the former; Clinton won’t do the latter. Go figure.

As a result, both of these front runners seem slightly dated. McCain has lost more altitude, trailing Rudy Giuliani 29% among Republicans in a CBS poll last week. Clinton maintains her 20-point lead among Democrats, but her Iraq empretzelment may be a leading indicator of a stiff, consultant-swarmed campaign that will come across as clanky in 2008. It is still early, of course. Both McCain and Clinton will have a chance to reinvent themselves several times between now and Iowa. “I’m a little rusty,” McCain said, wading into Iowa crowds last week. All right, but he, and Clinton, should hope that it’s only rust–and not mold.

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