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How Hillary Clinton blew it

January 3, 2008 | 11:55 pm

What the Hill happened to her?

Hillary Clinton had everything on her side, it seemed. Name recognition. A nationwide network of political contacts from a generation of party work. Dozens of endorsements, albeit from aging singers, pols and athletes. A vaunted political operation from her husband's numerous successes. Her popular husband himself. A detailed grasp of policy. A steely determination. A sharp, calculating mind. More than $100 million. And, until Thursday night, a sense of inevitability about her Democratic nomination and even coronation as the next president, the first first lady to do that, and a triumphant return to the White House.

Now, BOOM! That's gone. She blew it.

But how?

Turns out, a lot of those alleged advantages were actually negative baggage. Every presidential election is about change. She tried to persuade a record 239,000 Iowan caucusgoers that she was the change agent, the anti-Bush, who would end the Iraq war but probably, maybe, likely not bring all the troops home right away. Then she tried to talk about our future by talking about her past.

Her "experience" was being first lady at the end of the last century, though the documentary proof of her active policy involvement remains locked in an Arkansas library. Then, the New York Times discloses...

... that she never got intelligence briefings during her White House years and had no security clearance. So how involved would that make her?

As proof of her experience, she talks about her fights. The past ones, which we all probably remember, maybe too well. Her struggles, which she saw as against entrenched health care, insurance and vast right-wing interests, but many others saw as surviving the wandering eyes and hands of an errant husband whom many of her gender would have walked away from.

Then, because he is so charming, popular and politically astute, as unlikely proof of her independent accomplishments the alleged feminist inexplicably and repeatedly trots out that very husband, who ends up outshining and out-talking the person who's supposed to be the candidate. A Clinton dynasty after a Bush dynasty? Is that change?

Her prevarications over driver's licenses for illegals and the revelation of her planting questions in allegedly open public forums added to her image of calculation. Like Bush, she stopped talking to the press, a controlling strategy that can avoid some mistakes but looks defensive, even suspicious.

More importantly, it's a preventive strategy that forfeits any opportunity to shape her own image as a likable human. What's her favorite color, movie, recent book, snack food, TV show, whatever. When, at the urging of a CNN debate producer, Clinton was asked something as stupid and sexist yet simple as preferring diamonds or pearls, she liked them both. Is there some pearl lobby PAC that donated to her campaign through Norman Hsu?

Contrast that losing approach to the winning communications strategy of, say, Mike Huckabee, another Arkansan from Hope who hasn't found a radio or TV show he won't go on to talk about losing his first election, playing the guitar badly but fondly, or once being so fat and fond of couches that he had to lose 110 pounds and start exercising or die prematurely. He'll be on eight morning shows today. 

When we see the Clintons standing there, together, even holding hands -- another calculation which was, to be very honest, pretty hard to view as genuine -- so many of us could see them more as tired reminders of the fatigue and the lingering distaste with all those scandals, storms and that messiness of the pre-9/11 era the Clintons are so proud of enduring. Travelgate and Monica and the pardons and all the rest. His loss of congressional control for six of his eight years. To return to that is progress? Or change? Who wants either?

Turns out, not as many Iowans as were attracted to the bright, energetic, young Illinois senator, an articulate activist who can just stand there in his black skin and be a symbol of change. True, he has what two, three years of experience in Washington. Which, in Washington, is not good. But, you know what? Given the way most of the country now views Washington, its choreographed partisanship, stubborn gridlock and daily rhetorical grenade-lobbing, two or three years there is far better than four or five there.

But Obama was also right about the Iraq involvement, and he talks intelligently and optimistically about hope and bringing people together. He seems genuine. She plays the gender card, talks about breaking the ultimate glass ceiling and living the dreams of 90-year-old women who couldn't vote when young, despite the bullying of the "boys" in the presidential club. But, you understand, she's not running as a woman candidate. She did get the endorsement of the Des Moines Register, which for Democrats is a dubious distinction since none who got that endorsement over the last 20 years have gone on to win the nomination.

Barack Obama doesn't even mention his race, not even to deny he's running because of it. And if many Iowa Democrats were worried about his preparation for the Oval Office, he knocked them over with his rousing Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech in November. His continued rolling out of credible programs. His poise and grace under attack. And as the debates progressed, his growth in confidence and willingness to, politely but firmly, confront Clinton directly.

And then there were those Christmas ads. What a contrast! Two adults, both independently accomplished, sitting, smiling, in a home by a tree, with their cute little girls wishing all the other families "Merry Christmas" and, to touch the other religious bases, "Happy Holidays."

And Clinton's Christmas ad, which just oozed sadness. A lone woman on a couch with no family; where was her husband this night? She's surrounded by gifts of government programs, which she intends to award to the American people as a queen would. "Now where did I put that universal pre-K?" the family-less wonk asks no one in particular because there's no one else there. Merry Christmas indeed.

It's early yet. Every presidential campaign endures setbacks. That's part of the American chief executive testing process. Mitt Romney's enduring that tonight himself. George W. Bush came roaring out of an Iowa success in 2000 and ran into a 19-point New Hampshire whacking by John McCain. There are many primary elections to come and Obama and Huckabee will surely get their turns at losing some.

The Clintons have survived worse defeats and humiliations, though not third place in Iowa. But in a tumultuous political system where, in 1992, Bill Clinton could become known as the Comeback Kid for not finishing first in New Hampshire, many unlikely twists are still possible this year. Even likely.

-- Andrew Malcolm