Who Did This To Hillary? : It's All Politics As the voting comes to an end, the resentment comes to a boil. And in this superheated atmosphere, accusations will fill the air.
NPR logo Who Did This To Hillary?

Who Did This To Hillary?

As the voting comes to an end, the resentment comes to a boil. And in this superheated atmosphere, accusations will fill the air.

Hillary Clinton mounted a furious comeback in the last three months of the primary season but was not able to catch Barack Obama in the delegate tally that determines the nomination. So all the hope and excitement that her late winning streak inspired among her fans may now fuel an angry search for scapegoats. Those in her camp who remain mystified by her defeat will need people to blame.

And there will be no shortage of candidates.

The Media. What's more distressing than watching your candidate lose? Watching people tell you your candidate is losing. This is why those who deliver bad news have often faced mortal risk. Historically, the deliverers knew well enough to look stricken about it. The modern media messenger may actually smile, or smirk. At that point, audience annoyance turns to rage. Too many of the people on TV seemed to be enjoying Clinton's ordeal, and too many of those people were journalists.

The media did not engineer Clinton's failure. But news reporting on her campaign has been a factor in her fall. That is because the greatest media bias is the bias in favor of a good story. And the media also treat the latest story line as the only story line. We all race to fish on the same side of the boat.

That was good news for Clinton in 2007, because the story line was about her inevitable nomination. She was dominating the debates, lining up the superdelegates and running away in the polls. The other Democratic candidates couldn't get any oxygen.

But late last fall, the inevitability story got old. The debates got more competitive. Obama started moving in Iowa, and the media ran to see what was happening on his side of the boat. His extraordinary speeches, energizing black voters and new voters, became the new compelling story line. And when he won the Iowa caucuses, that new line took over.

It took two months for Clinton to recover some momentum of her own with primary wins in Ohio and Texas. By then it may have been too late, as proportional distribution of delegates helped Obama sustain a lead among pledged delegates.

The Rules Committee. This one will be popular among those who believed, late in the game, that Clinton could claim the lion's share of the delegates from those two jump-the-gun January primaries in Michigan and Florida. But this was never going to happen. The rules that prevented it had been set last year by the very people who were being asked to overturn them.

A total ban on the two states was always unrealistic. But starting with that extreme penalty enabled the committee to compromise on a 50 percent reduction in their voting power. It was clear for months that this would be the outcome, and there were no realistic alternatives. Any appeal to the larger Credentials Committee would run smack into exactly the same set of calculations (and a committee with a smaller percentage of Clinton backers).

Michigan and Florida. Had the two mega-states voted in their regular February slots, each would have received far more candidate time and money. Had they both voted for Clinton, they would have countered the big February swing to Obama that put him permanently ahead in the pledged delegate count. By defying the national party rules, these states may have cost Clinton the contest.

Proportional distribution of delegates. Several times in the late going, both Bill and Hillary Clinton noted that under Republican rules, several of her biggest wins would have given her all the delegates from major states. That was how John McCain, with far fewer votes and far smaller percentages, all but wrapped up his nomination on Super Tuesday (Feb. 5). Proportional distribution has been a Democratic obsession since the 1968 convention fiasco, when Hubert Humphrey was nominated without having entered any primaries at all. Maximizing the democratic principle began as a reform and became a kind of fanaticism. But there is little chance the Democrats will reverse this commitment any time soon.

Bill Clinton. It's been said many times, but Hillary Clinton's husband was both the springboard for her candidacy and the millstone around her neck. She would never have been a senator from New York or a presidential candidate without him, but his distracting presence in the campaign was a constant thorn. His slighting remarks about Obama's victory in South Carolina had a racial tinge, and right up to the day of the final primary, he was stealing the media spotlight with outbursts that did his spouse no good. At this stage, the former president is probably the biggest obstacle to her being Obama's running mate. Even if you can imagine him on stage with the Obamas in Denver, where would you fit him into a new White House hierarchy?

But having a list of scapegoats does not exonerate Clinton's own campaign. Clinton lost because her campaign made mistakes, both large and small. Much has been said about the failure to organize the less populous states that held caucuses in the early months. These states allowed Obama to pile up delegates in disproportionate numbers. (By dominating in the Idaho caucus, for example, Obama got a 10-delegate bigger net payoff than Clinton got in Ohio).

Ultimately, the Clinton campaign foundered on one miscalculation that would give rise to most of its subsequent problems. From the earliest days of its conception, this campaign assumed its biggest challenge was to win in November 2008. Securing the Democratic nomination in 2008 seemed comparatively easy. No one on the Democratic horizon seemed daunting to the Clinton team during her first Senate term.

When the biggest vote of that term came up, in October of 2002, the smart money said she should vote with President George W. Bush to use force against Iraq. That would give her national security credibility against a Republican foe six years hence. This vote, of course, became her vote "for the war," and so it remained — despite all her efforts to redefine it after the war went sour.

Without that vote, Obama would have had no substantive issue on which to oppose Clinton in the early skirmishing of 2007. As it turned out, the war issue was huge for hard-core Democrats in 2007, and it gave Obama an opening and a chance to get traction against the front-runner who was so much better known.

Without that vote, Obama might not have run at all.