You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Obama Rising

Where Hillary went wrong--and how Barack took advantage.

After the first Democratic debate, at the end of April, when Hillary Clinton made her main rivals seems small and insignificant, I expected that Barack Obama would fade from contention even before the Iowa Caucus. And in the months that followed, Obama seemed to be doing just that. But Clinton’s recent missteps, amplified by John Edwards’ strident attacks upon her, provided Obama with an opening--and in a stirring speech before the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines November 10, Obama took it. Based purely on opinion polls--and some scattered interviewing--I still see Clinton as the favorite for the nomination, but I can now envision a scenario in which Obama could surpass her.

Let's retrace Clinton's critical missteps over the last six weeks. First, on September 26, she voted for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment on Iran, which designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. It also committed the United States to structuring its forces in Iraq “with regard to the capability of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to pose a threat to the security of the region, the prospects for democracy for the people of the region, and the health of the global economy.” The Kyl-Lieberman amendment was merely a “sense of the Senate” resolution. It did not bind the Bush administration to doing anything. But the resolution seemed to affirm the administration’s bellicose posture toward Iran and could, perhaps, be used as a justification for a military attack.

Clinton’s reason for supporting the resolution was that, as the Times put it, she was shifting from “primary mode, when she needs to guard against critics from the left, to general election mode, when she must guard against critics from the right.” Clinton, the article said, was also “solidifying crucial support from the pro-Israel lobby.”

These explanations reinforce the impression that for narrow political reasons, Clinton lent her support to a measure that might eventually lead to war. And that, of course, revives doubts about Clinton’s vote in October 2002 for the Iraq war: Namely, has she really rethought her support for the Iraq war? And even if she has, will pressure from Washington lobbies or from political opponents who accuse her of timidity sway her to back new military misadventures?

Clinton’s second misstep was during the October 30 Democratic debate, when she equivocated on New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s plan to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. When asked whether she still thought the plan makes sense (as she had told a New Hampshire newspaper), Clinton seemed to agree. But after Sen. Chris Dodd disagreed with her view, she interjected, “I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it.” When the moderator Tim Russert asked her again whether she supported the plan, she accused him of playing “gotcha,” and then muddied the waters still further. “Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No. But do I understand the sense of real desperation…?”  

Clinton’s rivals quickly pointed out that she had “said two different things.” It wasn’t simply that she contradicted herself. Her hesitancy, and unwillingness to take a clear stand, reinforced charges that she took positions based primarily on what she thought was popular. Like her vote on Kyl-Lieberman, her equivocation seemed to suggest that when it counted, she would prove incapable of shaping, and not merely reflecting, popular opinion. In some cases, her political calculations might lead her to take the wrong position; in other cases, they might lead her to take no clear position at all. Obama commented in the debate, “Immigration is a difficult issue. But part of leadership is not just looking backwards and seeing what’s popular, or trying to gauge popular sentiment. It’s about setting a direction for the country. And that’s what I intend to do as president.”

Clinton’s third misstep was in appearing to block access to her papers from the Clinton administration. During the debate, she first seemed to blame the National Archives for not releasing her papers. “Well, actually, Tim, the Archives is moving as rapidly as the Archives moves,” she told Russert. When Russert pointed out that Bill Clinton had written a letter asking that any communication with her and him not be public until 2012, she seemed to lay the blame on her husband: “Well that’s not my decision to make,” she replied. The Clintons’ refusal to allow access to the papers--while Hillary Clinton simultaneously trumpeted her White House experience--suggested that she had something to hide. It evoked the dark side of the Clinton years: The scandals that were not simply provoked by an inquisitorial media or right-wing hit squads, but by the Clintons’ own behavior. And it lent credence to Obama’s insinuation that Clinton’s election would bring back the polarized Washington of the '90s.

After the debate, Edwards, whose own campaign seems to be floundering, seized upon Clinton’s missteps to run the kind of incendiary ads one would expect to see from opponents in a general election. The ads, dubbed “The Politics of Parsing,” showed Clinton offering contradictory or equivocal responses on whether to withdraw from Iraq, how to fix social security, and what to do about driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. Edwards’ attacks may not help his own standing with voters, but they are likely to wound Clinton, just as Dick Gephardt’s attacks wounded front-runner Howard Dean before the 2004 Iowa Caucus.

The prime beneficiary of Edwards’ ads, and potentially of Edwards’ flagging support, is Obama, who has pulled statistically even with Clinton in the latest Iowa poll. In the past Clinton was able to argue that there was no significant political difference between herself and Obama, and that due to her superior experience, she was more likely to accomplish what they both advocated. But Clinton’s equivocation and transparent calculation raised questions about whether she was sufficiently committed to carry out their common objectives. Clinton could also benefit from the perception that a white woman of considerable experience was more electable than a black man who had only served in the Senate for three years and had little to show for it. But Clinton’s equivocation--and the controversy over the White House papers--was a reminder of her political vulnerabilities, which would be fully exploited in a general election campaign. (One need only recall the 2004 election when John Kerry’s positioning and flip-flopping, widely known to reporters, barely surfaced during the primaries, but were successfully made into a major issue during the general election.)

Obama’s speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner advanced the argument for his own candidacy. None of the other Democratic or Republican candidates can match his sheer rhetorical brilliance: his ability to be at once cool and passionate, cerebral and emotional. Earlier in the campaign, his eloquence appeared superfluous. It was negated by Clinton’s polish and experience. But as Clinton’s vulnerabilities have reemerged, Obama’s oratorical powers have suddenly become relevant again. They are seen as his means of transcending his inexperience and race (which will be a disadvantage in a general election campaign). They are a promise that, unlike Clinton, he will actually do what he says he is going to do without getting caught in the maelstrom of Washington party politics.

The speech Obama gave that evening was the best I’ve seen during this campaign. (Here's the video and full transcript.) He appeared focused on the future and on what he would do differently than George W. Bush (“We have a chance to bring the country together in a new majority ”), while ticking off the reasons for doubting Clinton’s sincerity and her commitment to “meaningful change” without ever naming her. Americans don’t want “the same old Washington textbook campaigns.” They don’t want “triangulating and poll-driven positions.” They want to be led “not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction.” They don’t want Democrats who think “the only way to look tough on national security is by talking, and acting, and voting like George Bush Republicans.” They “don’t want to spend the next year or the next four years re-fighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s.”

Obama has tried to portray himself as a twenty-first century version of Abraham Lincoln, whom he evoked repeatedly in his speech in Springfield, Illinios, last February when he announced his candidacy. That’s understandable. Obama wants to use the example of Lincoln (who served only two years in Congress) to show that experience in Washington is not a prerequisite to presidential greatness. But Obama, who riffed on Lincoln’s fateful words, “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” to explain his own program of political unification, wouldn’t want to press the comparison too far. Lincoln needed a civil war to unify the nation. Obama promises to do so through political inspiration.

But there is a more telling comparison to Obama’s campaign. As blogger Matt Stoller pointed out last spring, Obama’s challenge to Clinton most clearly recalls Gary Hart’s 1984 challenge to Walter Mondale in the Democratic primaries. Obama, like Hart, is running a classic outsider campaign, promising “meaningful change” against the insider candidate of the “special interests” in Washington. If you look at Hart’s campaign ads from 1984, it feels as if Obama’s ads were modeled upon them.

Hart’s campaign fell short, and Obama’s could as well. As the vote nears, he will face questions about his electability--just as Howard Dean did in 2004. His outsider rhetoric tends to reinforce arguments about his inexperience. And the premise of his campaign--that he can unify a divided Washington and nation--may prove unsustainable, in so far as it relies on the assumption that the polarization of the Clinton years was primarily due to Clinton’s triangulation and not to a combative Republican majority determined to destroy his presidency. To date, the media has given Obama pretty much a free pass on his political assumptions.

Still, there now seems to be a path by which Obama could gain the nomination. Aided by Edwards’ votes and, perhaps, by further Clinton missteps, he could win Iowa and New Hampshire. He would then have established sufficient credibility with South Carolina’s black voters to win that state’s primary. On Super Tuesday, February 5, he would have to win California, a few Southern states, and one or two Midwestern states in addition to Illinois to be competitive for the long haul. Obama would still not be home free, but he would certainly be in position to challenge Clinton well into the spring.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.