What did Clinton do wrong?

Her race isn't officially over yet, but the postmortems have already begun.

Published May 8, 2008 6:04PM (EDT)

With everyone pretty much declaring the Democratic nomination race over, the finger-pointing has begun, and people are beginning to examine why Hillary Clinton -- once considered the inevitable nominee -- has apparently lost her bid for the presidency.

Time magazine's Karen Tumulty has a good analysis of what went wrong. She lists five big mistakes: "She misjudged the mood," "she didn't master the rules," "she underestimated the caucus states," "she relied on old money" and "she never counted on a long haul."

As I said, it's a good analysis, made all the better by a very interesting if ultimately fairly minor scoop. Tumulty reports on a Clinton strategy session held last year:

As aides looked over the campaign calendar, chief strategist Mark Penn confidently predicted that an early win in California would put [Clinton] over the top because she would pick up all the state's 370 delegates. It sounded smart, but as every high school civics student now knows, Penn was wrong: Democrats, unlike the Republicans, apportion their delegates according to vote totals, rather than allowing any state to award them winner-take-all. Sitting nearby, veteran Democratic insider Harold M. Ickes, who had helped write those rules, was horrified -- and let Penn know it. "How can it possibly be," Ickes asked, "that the much vaunted chief strategist doesn't understand proportional allocation?" And yet the strategy remained the same, with the campaign making its bet on big-state victories.

I'd add one other thing to Tumulty's list. The Clinton campaign focused on making its candidate seem inevitable; it spent almost no energy making her seem human. There's still a lot of distaste for Clinton remaining from her husband's administration, a lot of it coming out of a sense that she's only a political creature, caring only about what will get her elected president. And the Clinton camp's strategy has played into that. Meanwhile, I know a few people who've spent time hating Clinton and who were swayed by a close encounter with her. She may not have the big-stage charm of her husband, but by all reports she's got charisma and warmth to spare. Her campaign never even made an effort to show that, and instead sent her out to say ridiculous things that made her look even more craven. The policy gaps between Obama and Clinton are not that wide, and the campaign had to be prepared for the race to come down to personal character -- Obama obviously had the advantage there, but still, the Clinton camp didn't need to play right into Obama's hands as it did.

One other interesting thing from Tumulty's story, by the way. Discussing why Clinton is still in the race, Tumulty reports, "Clinton's calculation is as much about history as it is about politics. As the first woman to have come this far, Clinton has told those close to her, she wants people who invested their hopes in her to see that she has given it her best."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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