Clinton Campaign’s Heavy Hand May Have Cost It the Nomination

In the wake of Sen Hillary Clinton’s failed bid to win the Democratic presidential nomination, the big question is, how and why did this happen? How did a person who had a huge lead in money, name recognition, and support from the Democratic Party establishment lose to a young, relatively unknown, African American novice?

If you do a Google search on the subject, you’ll find pages and pages of sources, more than you could read in a day, or maybe a week. Most agree on a few things:
• the Clinton campaign showed poor judgment in ignoring small states and caucus states.
• the Clinton campaign was not able to match the Obama campaign’s Internet-based, small donor fund-raising machine.
• Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War hurt her standing among progressives and the anti-war elements of the Democratic Party.
• Barack Obama turned out to be a unique, charismatic competitor.

All of that is probably true. But I think a lot of people are missing an element that was key, although not necessarily decisive: in the end, the superdelegates got tired of being pushed around by the Clintons. And without the support of the superdelegates, the Clintons were doomed.


The super delegates, of course, are US Governors, members of Congress, state legislators, and other Democrats who have either been elected to office or are part of the Party’s orgainized apparatus.

As the primary season wore down, the Clinton campaign hoped that the ‘superdels’ would be willing to choose Clinton for president, despite Obama’s lead in primary and caucus victories. As reported by the Washington Post,

Her success came mostly when it was too late. Clinton’s strategy was predicated by necessity on convincing uncommitted superdelegates that she would be a stronger nominee than Obama. Despite victories in key states over the past few months, she and her advisers found those party leaders and elected officials impervious to events.

Asked why the campaign could never crack the superdelegates, who had started out predisposed toward her candidacy, Geoff Garin, one of the top strategists, said yesterday, “I think it’s a mystery and an irony, and an irony in the sense that Hillary was seen as inevitable when it didn’t matter and Obama was seen as inevitable when it did.”

I think I can solve the mystery.

One enduring mythology about the Clintons is that they’ll do anything to get elected.

That can translate into demanding loyalty from supporters and employing a take no prisoners approach to their enemies. It is an approach that has been honed through numerous battles, such as Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment hearings.

That way of doing things is great when you’re in power, and people know that there are penalties for messing with the alpha dog. But when you’re not the alpha dog, people see it as more bark than bite.

And there was a lot of barking. Throughout the campaign, the Cintons took a heavy-handed approach to dealing with their fellow Democrats, as shown in this handful of cases:

[1] The Judas

In March, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced his support for Barack Obama’s presidential bid. The New York Times said “It was a stinging rejection of Clinton’s candidacy by a man who had served in two senior positions (energy secretary and ambassador to the United Nations) in President Bill Clinton’s administration.”

In response, James Carville, a fierce Clinton supporter, said that Richardson had committed “an act of betrayal.” Carville went on to say that “Mr. Richardson’s endorsement came right around the anniversary of the day when Judas sold out for 30 pieces of silver, so I think the timing is appropriate, if ironic,” Carville said.

Richardson retorted by calling Carville’s comments the “kind of political venom that I anticipated from certain Clinton supporters and I campaigned against in my own run for president.”

Although Carville said that the comments were his own, most understood that he was speaking on behalf of the Clintons. Carville said that “Richardson’s appointments in Bill Clinton’s administration and his longtime personal relationship with both Clintons, combined with his numerous assurances to the Clintons and their supporters that he would never endorse any of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s opponents, merited a strong response.”

I’m sure the bare-knuckled nature of Carville’s attack embarrassed, but did not surprise, many Democratic Party insiders.

Richardsons’ courage in bucking the Clinton machine may be more key than we know. It may have encouraged superdelegate fence-sitters to hop on the Obama band-wagon earlier than they might have.

[2] The Threat from Clinton Donors

Also in March, a group of wealthy pro-Clinton contributors sent a letter to Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, calling on her to back away from comments they felt were damaging to Clinton’s campaign run. The letter was seen by many as a threat to cut off funding to Democratic candidates in the fall elections.

Pelosi had said she believed that supedelegates should support whichever candidate has the lead in pledged delegates. That position favored Obama, who had a big lead in primary and caucus wins at the time.

The Clinton supporters’ letter asked Pelosi to reaffirm that superdelegates should be free to back whichever candidate they believe would be the party’s best nominee. They wrote that “We have been strong supporters of the DCCC (which is responsible for raising money for candidates running for the House of Representatives). We therefore urge you to clarify your position on super-delegates and reflect in your comments a more open view to the optional independent actions of each of the delegates at the National Convention in August.”

Pelosi responded in an email by saying “Here’s what you and I can’t let happen… We can’t allow the tension and pressures of a spirited presidential contest to spill over and harm hard-working Democratic candidates running to strengthen our Democratic majority in the House. I will do whatever it takes to protect our candidates and make sure their campaigns to drive change forward don’t skip a beat. I need you to do the same.”

CNN Political Editor Mark Preston said that “Speaker Pelosi was clearly sending a message that she would not be strong armed by anyone and will not allow this presidential contest to jeopardize House Democrats in November.”

The threat from the Clinton supporters may have back-fired. The DCCC saw a surge in online contributions, which officials there attributed to a mass action to protest the Clinton donor threat.

[3] The Gas Tax Challenge

In April and May, Sen Clinton – and John McCain – called for a gas tax holiday, that would suspend the federal gas tax during the summer. The strategy was universally condemned by economists, and criticized by Obama as a “gimmick” that is “designed to get them through an election.” and not “you through the summer.”

As reported on Fox News,

“Faced with a slew of experts and even some political allies who say her plan to suspend the federal gas tax for the summer is anything but a solution to the price problem at the pump, Sen Hilary Clinton took the fight above and beyond her two rivals for the White House — calling on every member of Congress to go on the record to support or oppose a federal gas tax holiday.

“Do they stand with the hard pressed Americans who are trying to pay their gas bills at the gas station, or do they once again stand with the oil companies?” she asked. Saying she’ll put the question to them soon in the form of legislation, Clinton said “I want them to tell us, are they with us or against us when it comes to taking on the oil companies?”

Some Democrats were unhappy with the way that Clinton was calling them out to support her plan. Mark Udall, who’s running for the US Senate in Colorada, issued a press statement titled UDALL ANSWERS CLINTON GAS TAX CHALLENGE, STANDS WITH COLORADANS FOR MEANINGFUL ENERGY RELIEF:

Yesterday in Indiana, Hillary Clinton challenged every member of Congress to go on the record with a position regarding her proposal to temporarily suspend the federal gasoline tax, and state whether they were with her or against her.

“The so-called ‘temporary gas tax holiday’ that Senators Clinton and McCain propose won’t deliver this needed relief. This will not create the economic relief they say it will, because prices will continue to rise until we address the real source of this problem…

“Senator Clinton claimed yesterday that I either stand with her on this proposal or stand with the oil companies. To that I say: I stand with the families of Colorado, who aren’t looking for bumper sticker fixes that don’t fix anything, but for meaningful change that brings real relief and a new direction for our energy policy. We can’t afford more Washington-style pandering while families keep getting squeezed.

“It is exactly the kind of short-sighted Washington game that keeps us from getting real results to our energy problem. Experts across the ideological spectrum agree that it will increase the deficit, drain money away from Colorado roads and bridges, and hurt the environment, all without actually making prices lower for drivers.”

[4] The “Bribe” for Superdelegate Votes

OK, this isn’t really an example of heavy-handedness. But it’s very questionable from an ethical standpoint. In May, the Huffington Post reported:

One of Sen. Hillary(sic) Clinton’s top financial supporters offered $1 million to the Young Democrats of America during a phone conversation in which he also pressed for the organization’s two uncommitted superdelegates to endorse the New York Democrat, a high-ranking official with YDA told The Huffington Post.

Haim Saban, the billionaire entertainment magnate and longtime Clinton supporter, denied the allegation. But four independent sources said that just before the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, Saban called YDA President David Hardt and offered what was perceived as a lucrative proposal: $1 million would be made available for the group if Hardt and the organization’s other uncommitted superdelegate backed Clinton.

My understanding is that this kind of financial wheeling dealing is not unique in political circles, although I don’t have ready access to a source. Still, the sheer size of this bribe, er, proposed contribution does raise some eyebrows.


These are a few incidents that we know about from the press. What we don’t know is, how many times have similar incidents occurred behind closed doors or in private phone calls? I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a lot more of this stuff than we know about.

I believe that the cumulative weight of these incidents created a reservoir of ill will toward the Clinton campaign. And finally, the superdelegates just got tired of the drama, and went for Obama.

One comment made about the Clintons is that “they’re always there when they need you.” It seems that at the end, they went to a well that had gone dry. Hence, we have seen the creation of a new kind of politics: the politics of self destruction.

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