Messages from Planet Clinton

You just have to wonder sometimes what planet the Clinton campaign team lives on. Mark Penn built his reputation as a no-nonsense numbers guy. Former President Bill Clinton is generally acknowledged to be the smartest politician of his generation. They launched Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) campaign with what was billed as the best strategists, the most money, the biggest organization, an insurmountable lead in all the polls and, as a result, the “inevitable” candidate.

Something happened on the way to the general election. In the real world, those early assumptions are now seen as misconceptions. Still, Hillary Clinton has refused to take no for an answer and has campaigned with grim determination from Iowa onward. And not without success. She’s twice been the comeback kid — not with enough force to close the deal, but enough to stay in the game.

In the process she’s been in every quadrant of a message matrix. She’s gone from “inevitable” to “scrappy fighter” to “comeback kid” to “sucker puncher” to “experience” to “solutions” to “gracious colleague” to “injured party” to “comeback” again and, in the past week, a combination of all the above. The vice presidential gambit must have seemed a clever idea in some late-night strategy session. The campaign would diminish Obama’s standing and reclaim the “inevitable” mantle at the same time. Voters could have it all — the president destined to lead the country and the new kid everyone seemed to like, even though he was obviously not ready for the top job.

Barack Obama correctly saw the idea as being too clever by half. When he stood up to slap it down this week he did so with grace and humor, which is the best way for him to punch back while retaining his new-politics message. He reminded voters that he’d won more states, received more votes, earned more delegates, raised more money and was leading in national polls. “I don’t know how somebody who is in second place is offering the vice presidency to the person who is in first place,” he wondered aloud to a Mississippi audience that erupted in laughter and cheers. He turned Clinton’s recent jabs on his lack of experience back at her with a smile and a light touch: “If I’m not ready, how is it you think I should be such a great vice president?”

A lot of voters are wondering, too. That logic “only works on Planet Clinton,” one former Hillary backer told me recently. There is a growing perception among Democrats that Clinton’s campaign continues to cross the line. I personally know half a dozen former Clinton supporters who have said, “Enough is enough” and changed their allegiance since the South Carolina primary. I hear reports from others around the country that early Hillary backers are now backing away. The numbers may not yet be showing up in national polls, but we’ve certainly seen evidence of Hillary fatigue as Obama closes the gap in states where Clinton once held a commanding lead. Whether that will happen in Pennsylvania is yet to be determined, but there are signs her double-digit margin is shrinking as voters watch the campaign unfold.

The messages from Planet Clinton are driving these defections. It is more than the continuing racial references from surrogates ranging from the former president to Geraldine Ferraro — although one has to assume these comments didn’t develop in a vacuum. They may not be part of Mark Penn’s message matrix, but race is clearly being discussed in meetings and conference calls and keeps bubbling to the surface. As we saw in Mississippi, that perception is driving black voters farther and farther away from the Clintons, which could be very bad news for the Democratic Party should she somehow become the nominee.

Which leads us to the most troubling message from Planet Clinton: a seeming determination to demand this nomination no matter the decision of primary and caucus voters. If trends continue, Barrack Obama will go to Denver with more delegates and more popular votes than Hillary Clinton. That seems not to matter to her. If she is able to wrest the nomination from Obama with the support of superdelegates — to “steal” it, as Obama supporters would see it — Denver will make Chicago ’68 look like a picnic and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will gain the White House. “Certainly,” people keep saying, “Hillary Clinton will not destroy the Democratic Party in order to save it.” Then we get another piece of twisted logic or random madness from Planet Clinton, and we’re forced to wonder.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com