Every successful (and most unsuccessful) campaign for President has at its core a raison d’être beyond merely the political ambition of the candidate. Which does not mean that this cause is the primary motivation for the candidate. To be cynical, often it is not. Rudi Guiliani, whose ostensible message was national security clearly had little if anything to support his candidacy other than his own ego. Nonetheless he had a message. He didn’t attempt to change all of his “liberal views” merely to satisfy conservatives.
Other candidates this year, also choose to focus their campaign on a core message. For John Edwards it was poverty and the growing inequality between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else. Chris Dodd focused on the threat to our civil liberties. Dennis Kucinich, on the impeachment of Bush and ending the war. Ron Paul, on his peculiar brand of libertarianism which attracted a fanatical (if ultimately limited) following. For Barack Obama, his core message is change, from changing the way politics is conducted in Washington to dramatically changing the way we confront terrorism, to the way we talk about race. Even McCain has staked his campaign on “winning” the war in Iraq and elsewhere against terror, essentially assuming the mantle of Bush’s woefully misguided, arrogant policy of American military imperialism.
Most candidates failed to catch the public’s attention for their cause, some had their cause subsumed within the campaigns of the leading contenders, but each had something other than his or her own naked ambition to justify their candidacy. Yet, try as I might, I can identify no overarching cause to justify the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. No cause that is except herself. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has always been primarily and solely about Hillary Clinton. It is fundamentally a politics of identity. And this, to me, is why she has failed.
From the first moment she entered the race, her message was largely about herself, Hillary Clinton. Just look at what she said during this race. I’m in it to win it. I’m the most experienced candidate. I’ve passed the commander in chief test (and Obama hasn’t). I’m the person in you want in the White House answering the phone at 3 am. I’m the most electable Democrat. I’m the one who can stand the heat of the vast right wing conspiracy. I’ve already been vetted. I’m the candidate who can beat John McCain. Hard working white people will vote for me. I’m the one who cares the most about the problems of the middle class. I’m inevitable. I’ve won the big states a Democrat needs to carry to win in November. The super-delegates should pick me because [fill in the blank with the talking point of the day].
It’s been an ongoing a litany of I, I, I and me, me, me throughout her campaign. The best example of it can be seen it her campaign’s reaction to former Clinton loyalist Bill Richardson’s endorsement of Obama. For her staunchest supporters his endorsement for her opponent wasn’t just a disappointment, it was an act of betrayal. Carville literally called Richardson “Judas” thus putting Hillary in the role of Jesus Christ, the savior of mankind, a designation for which she never denounced or criticized Carville. Think about that for a moment. Let it sink in. What does it tell you about her and her supporters?
This is not to say that Hillary Clinton doesn’t have a raft of policy proposals. She does, some well thought out, and some, like her gas tax holiday proposal, less so. Yet those policies have never been the defining feature of her campaign. Hillary Clinton, the brand, has always been front and center. Which explains her willingness to practice the “politics of personal destruction” for which she so famously condemned Republicans when she and her husband were the target of their slanderous and malicious attacks during his Presidency. Because if your own brand isn’t good enough, if your brand isn’t generating the victories you need to win the nomination, than what other option do you have but to tear down the other candidates brand? If your only cause is yourself, than doesn’t that skew how you view the campaigns of your opponents? Don’t you look at all your adversaries through the lens of your own motivations? What else can you conceive of doing to fight back other than to demean and defame their message and their character in the eyes of the public when you have no overarching principle for your campaign other than your own ego, your own overriding belief in your destiny?
In the end, this is the starkest difference between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. She represents the politics of identity, of person before party, before principle, before anything. The politics which makes it impossible for the candidate to ever admit a mistake in judgment, such as her refusal to ever apologize for her vote to send us into war in Iraq. The politics which requires her to pander to whatever audience she needs most at the moment, whether that be her fat cat financial backers, corporate lobbyists, or the “hard working class white people” whose votes she needed in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Indiana to overcome Obama’s recent and overwhelming advantage among African Americans and young people. The politics which requires loyalty flowing up from below but not loyalty flowing down from above.
That is the tragedy of her campaign. She had no cause other than herself. Perhaps in any other year that would have been enough. Her celebrity, and our lazy media’s obsession with front runners, would have been sufficient to present her with an easy path to the nomination. But too many Americans have moved on. Too many of us want something more from our politicians. We don’t want a President who acts like a monarch, who expects us to obey his or her dictates, and elevate his or her goals above all other considerations. We’ve already tried that these last 8 years and look where it’s gotten us. Nor do we want a President like her husband, who “felt our pain” even has he promoted the agenda of big business, and essentially abandoned the core of liberal, progressive principles which had been the foundation of the Democratic party since FDR’s New Deal.
I don’t know what kind of President Obama will make, or whether his rhetoric can translate into the change he heralds in his speeches. I have my hope that he will be the transformative, transcendent political figure who will enable and inspire the change we, as a nation, need, but at this point that is all that I have. However, I do know what kind of President Hillary Clinton would have made. And she is not the kind of leader well suited for the crises facing us in the 21st Century.
We’ve had enough of the top down, you’re either with me or against me, style of presidential leadership to last a lifetime.