Thursday, February 21, 2008

Meanwhile, in Hillaryland

The wheels, they are coming off.

Even now, after a string of defeats, her advisers are divided over how to proceed as they head toward what could be her last stands, in Ohio and Texas on March 4.

Some — led by Mark Penn, her chief strategist — have been pushing Mrs. Clinton to draw sharper and deeper contrasts with Mr. Obama, arguing that she has no other option, campaign officials said.

Others, particularly Mandy Grunwald, her media adviser, have pushed for a less aggressive approach, arguing that attacks would not help Mrs. Clinton’s campaign in an environment in which she is increasingly appearing to struggle, aides said.

This latest division within the campaign reflects intense frustration among Mrs. Clinton’s advisers as they look for ways to turn around their campaign against Mr. Obama, an opponent whose appeal and skills as a candidate caught them by surprise. So far, her own positive message has been outshone by his, and every line of attack on him has fallen short, fizzled or backfired.

This thing is pretty much done. The only way that you could beat someone like Obama, as I said a little while back, is to have the focused power of an electoral machine at your back. That's the narrative of the Democratic primary: social movement vs. party machine, with the strengths and weaknesses of both hotly discussed and debated.

In order for either to work, they have to remain focused on their strengths. Obama needs to keep up the inspirational oratory and that already legendary charisma. By and large he has, carping by Republicans aside. Clinton, by contrast, needs to keep the mechanisms and gears of her Democratic machine tightly wound and moving smoothly. That will convince primary voters that when that machine is aimed at the Republicans, they won't stand a chance.

It can work, and it has worked. Up until Super Tuesday, the machine was running well, Iowa aside. Penn and co. may have disagreed, but that tension was precisely what kept the machine running. Now it's slipped a cog, and we're watching it break down. Bits and pieces are flying hither and yon as the machine hurtles to nowhere. It hasn't been completely destroyed yet, but it's only a matter of time: that formerly useful tension is inexorably tearing it apart.

It's almost sad. The Dems really do need to learn to work as a machine, and there always was something to be said for Hillary's approach. Obama has problems of his own, and they'll need to be worked out as well, lest his own movement turns in on itself.

But the fact remains that if you're running on your ability to marshall a political machine, and that machine falls apart, you don't have much else to recommend you. You're done.

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