The Inner-Circular Firing Squad

All or nothing.  That’s what awaits you as a political strategist in national politics.  If your carefully groomed horse wins, you are heralded as a genius, a political mastermind.  Just look at Karl Rove.

But if you lose, scorn is heaped upon you with aplomb.  You’re a disaster and if you let it happen too often, you’re a serial loser.  Ask Bob Shrum.

The interesting thing about how quick we are to label the strategists behind the curtain is that while they do play a significant role, much in political campaigns reaches far out of their control.  You have the actual skill of the candidate, and public opinion which can turn on a dime.  You have a fickle press corps, and real world events that can alter the landscape of a race with the suddenness and complete destruction of a category 5 hurricane.

Strategists play an integral part in shaping how a candidate deals with these external factors, but sometimes it comes down to guess work, and sometimes neither intelligent decisions nor the luckiest guesses will pull you through.

Still, I think Mark Penn deserves every bit of the lashing that he’s getting right now, embodied by another Clinton staffer, Harold Ickes.

The fact of the matter is, the Clinton camp had a winning strategy going into this race, but the moment things got a little shaky, instead of holding true to the game plan, they ditched the inevitable incumbent idea for the “kitchen sink fusillade” that has sought to slowly sink the campaign.

And the funny thing is, Penn should have seen it coming.  The dynamics weren’t that hard to predict.  You take a major risk going negative against a candidate who is very successfully campaigning against negative politics.

Now, had Obama’s message failed to resonate with Democratic voters, that would be one thing.  If Hillary was really at risk when the campaign took this turn down a dark alley, I could understand that too.  But neither was the case.

When the Clinton camp first went negative, Clinton had strong leads just about everywhere and yeah, Obama was making up ground in a few places, but she was still the strong frontrunner without much to put that in danger.  And Obama was doing quite well with his anti-negative campaigning theme, which means that getting too deep in the mud would only emphasize and bolster that message.

Now, there were some warning signs, but instead of going off message and turning negative, the Clinton camp would have been much better served had it refocused on defining Hillary; smoothed over and found better answers for some of the rough patches like her Iraq War vote, and putting more depth in her narrative.

Given public impressions of both her and Obama the LAST thing her campaign should have done was say a single negative thing about Obama.  At that time he was the one behind, he was the one that had to break through, and he was the one that would eventually have to go negative, weakening the foundation of his campaign’s message.

But the worst thing Penn could have done, he did.  He let it go negative, and the problems this caused were several.  It turned off voters who don’t like negative messaging (see Wisconsin and South Carolina specifically).  It justified Obama’s message.  And it took the focus off of Hillary Clinton.

Once the pattern was established that Hillary Clinton was going negative, an interesting side effect was that the focal point of the campaign became Barack Obama.  Obama was getting both positive and negative press, while Clinton was for the most part only getting the bad.

Then of course you have the debacles of ignoring post Super Tuesday states which was an emulation of the already proven failure that was the Giuliani strategy, and the ill-conceived play for Super Delegates.

With the Giuliani strategy it was as much a psychological failure as a logistical one.  Losing ten contests in a row is like stamping “loser” on a candidate and makes it difficult to generate any kind of positive momentum, but also, it allowed Obama to open up a significant lead in pledged delegates, one so big that Hillary’s Super Delegates can no longer overcome at this point.

As for the Super Delegate grab, that only reinforced a negative narrative for Clinton, and the last thing you want is a negative narrative surrounding your candidate.  Funnily enough, in recent days the Clinton campaign has turned an almost perfect 180 on Clinton as she’s now actively appealing to Super Delegates NOT to commit out of fear they will commit to Obama to put an end to this race.

I’ve said it about a million times, the Clinton candidacy could have avoided a great amount of this heartache, and it’s not all entirely her fault.  A lot of that rests with the campaign.

And if Mark Penn wants to call himself the “chief strategist”, it’s going to be his shoulders that will have to bear the brunt of that weight.

One Response to “The Inner-Circular Firing Squad”

  1. lkm55 says:

    the Clinton’s know the primary rule of negative politics: if you go negative, go for the kill.You have to annihilate the other candidate to overcome the sour taste you’re leaving in voters mouths.
    HRC’s problem was her squad of private detectives apparently couldn’t find anything to bad on Obama or they would have used it.
    Hence, the paper cuts they tried to inflict onObama.

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