Friday, February 22, 2008
It's easy to assume that the worst place to be in a campaign that's going through tough times is right in the middle of it. At least you're not Hillary, people say to me all the time. But in my experience, the hardest place to be in a hard campaign is not right in the middle. I've been there, and it can be eerie and strange, but you rarely get as depressed as you do when you're one step removed. Maybe that's a good thing.
In the middle of the campaign, no matter how many votes you've lost or are about to, you're surrounded by people, thousands of them, who are on your side. In the final days of the Mondale campaign, we went from one amazing rally to the next, with tens of thousands of people chanting their support, the product of generations of men and women literally coming out of retirement to give the former vice president the send-off he deserved, no matter what the closing weeks held in store for him.
In the final weeks of the Dukakis campaign, Dick Gephardt asked me, after a meeting with the candidate, whether he actually knew he was likely to lose, so upbeat (or oblivious) did Dukakis seem in light of the doom making both Gephardt and me distraught.
The point is, he said it to me, not the candidate. Sherman Adams, Eisenhower's chief of staff, used to tell a story that I head David Gergen, a top aide to both Republican and Democratic presidents, repeat, about the problem of getting people to say the negative things they tell aides to the "man" himself. Both Adams and Gergen would regularly get an earful from people about how someone should tell the boss he was doing this, that and the other thing wrong, so they, in turn, would make time for the person to talk to the "man" himself. Once ushered in, of course, the former critic would become the current fan: You're doing great, your critics are all wrong, you're right on track, everything you think is right.
I cannot begin to tell you how many times I saw that happen in my experience with presidential candidates. No one likes to be the messenger of bad news, the carrier of criticism, the pessimist predicting doom to a person who then has to go out and rally the tired troops. The result is that the eye of the storm is sometimes the calmest place in a struggling campaign.
One step removed is another matter. This is not a calm time for friends and supporters of Hillary Clinton. There is much talk, but more heat than light. The problem is that most of the people I talk to don't know what they'd tell her if someone ushered them into a room with her. I understand. I can't tell you, or her, why, after a strong showing on Super Tuesday, after consistently strong debate performances, after weathering tough times in Iowa and South Carolina, she has lost 10 straight. I take nothing away from Obama, but it isn't as if she has fallen on her face, done something wrong or embarrassed herself. And while he is an inspirational and impressive guy, he has yet to make the five policy speeches that would give substance to his agenda.
For many Hillary supporters, especially the many strong women who admire the guts and determination she has shown in this campaign, the troubling question is not whether race is defining this campaign, but whether sex -- or to put it bluntly, sexism -- is. If the problem is that so many people really don't like Hillary, and reading the blogs is certainly enough to suggest that, the question is why. The economy is an issue on which the Clintons, both of them, have enormous credibility. She has been articulate, enthusiastic and, yes, human. The people who don't like her generally don't know her. Could it, in the end, be an issue of gender? And what can anyone do about that? Except maybe say it out loud.
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