Any hopes Hillary Clinton’s campaign had that it could make the demotion of “chief strategist” Mark Penn a neutral or even positive story is rapidly dimming, as political journalists line up to criticize its general competence.
The latest example is a harsh article in The Politico by Jim Vandehei and David Paul Kuhn with the unforgiving title: “Clinton leadership a study in missteps.” A sample:
Clinton has overseen two major staff shake-ups in two months. She has left a trail of unpaid bills and unhappy vendors and had to loan her own campaign $5 million to keep it afloat in January. Her campaign badly underestimated her main adversary, Barack Obama, miscalculated the importance of organizing caucus states and was caught flat-footed after failing to lock up the nomination on Super Tuesday.
It would be easy to dismiss all of this as fairly conventional political stumbling — if she hadn’t made her supreme readiness and managerial competence the central issue of her presidential campaign.
For what it’s worth, I personally think a lot of the criticism of Clinton’s campaign is an exercise in 20-20 hindsight. Her third-place finish in the Iowa Caucus disguised an organization in the state that was probably better than that of past winners. Her fundraising, and even her small-dollar fundraising, has vastly outstripped all precedents. And obviously, she’s survived political near-death experiences at least twice in the course of this campaign.
The problem is that in Barack Obama, Clinton has faced a candidate and a campaign that are operating on a whole ‘nother level. As Peter Beinart put it in a Washington Post op-ed piece yesterday, Obama’s [campaign] “has been an organizational wonder, the political equivalent of crossing a Lamborghini with a Hummer.”
And despite his obvious vulnerabilities against Clinton and potentially against John McCain in a general election, Obama has created a political movement that constantly threatens to change the rulebook.
Let’s put it this way: is anyone confident, in retrospect, that Hillary Clinton would not have already locked up the nomination weeks ago if Obama were not in the race? Could, say, John Edwards or Bill Richardson or Chris Dodd have really challenged her financially, or picked up enough votes to have come close to the powerful women/Hispanic/African-American coalition she would have been able to put together if Obama hadn’t run?
I certainly doubt it. So maybe the best assessment of HRC’s candidacy at this point is that she’s run the kind of campaign that should have and probably would have won if so many constellations hadn’t suddenly lined up against her.
That’s how it looks post-Penn, and how it may look post-Pennsylvania as well.