The Clinton Campaign/Iraq Analogy

As I’ve said, I’m still going to critique the Clinton campaign as a way of studying what went wrong, and what went right. One thing that struck me as I drove home a few hours ago, though, was how strikingly similar the trajectory of the Clinton campaign and that of our occupation of Iraq had been.

Of course, analogies always fall apart on some level, but there are some key parallels that I believe are worth mentioning. The first and foremost, of course, being the run up to Super Tuesday and Super Tuesday itself.

In the buildup to the Iraq war, it was sold as a cakewalk, that we would be greeted with candies and flowers, welcomed as liberators. Whether through ignorant omission or through intentional obfuscation, the Bush administration did not portray for the American people the significant complexity and difficulties that invading Iraq would present and, in the end, we learned the hard way that the invasion and subsequent occupation were not, in fact, a cakewalk.

So too goes the Clinton campaign’s intentions regarding Super Tuesday. Many, including the Clinton campaign itself, believed that the entire primary would be done and over with on Super Tuesday. We would later be made fully aware of how deeply vested in this concept the Clinton campaign was when it utterly failed to prepare for the states whose primaries took place later in February. But this was a widely held belief not just within the campaign, but without. Obama had a bright glimmer of hope when he won Iowa, but the loss in New Hampshire, and apparent loss in Nevada combined to tarnish that glimmer.

But just as Bush didn’t cover all the bases he needed to in order to quickly establish a peaceful post Saddam Iraq, Clinton failed to take into account the effectiveness of Obama countering her big state strategy with his own more complete all state strategy. And thus, while it was expected that Clinton would have the entire primary sewn up in early February, the day after Super Tuesday provided a much bleaker picture than she was hoping for. In fact, Clinton would never actually hold a lead in pledged delegates throughout the race.

What followed in both Clinton’s campaign and the US occupation of Iraq would be an era of mismanagement and chaos. In Iraq, this would account for much of the Iraq War, especially that prior to Muqtada al Sadr’s call for a ceasefire amongst the Jaish al Mahdi, and the surge. For Clinton, this would be February.

Indeed, the mismanagement of the Clinton campaign had led to the replacement of Patti Solis Doyle, and would see a definitive shift away from the strategy that allowed Obama to build up the delegate and popular vote leads that have buoyed him through some particularly rough patches in the primaries. Just as Bush, Rumsfeld, and Cheney seemed to meander aimlessly with regard to strategy in Iraq, pushing from one Friedman unit to the next, the Clinton camp astonishingly ignored one state after another, assuming that playing the game of low expectations would be all the damage control that they needed.

I say astonishingly because it was a surprise that the Clinton campaign wouldn’t contest those states more vehemently, put more resources in them, and work harder to at least cut into Obama’s leads.

And, as the American public’s opinion soured on the Iraq War and a new strategy was created, so did we see confidence in the one time predicted nominee make a shift in strategy.

For Bush, we know this new strategy as the surge, with Clinton it was a matter of actually contesting every state, building firewalls, and employing what was called by one staffer, the “kitchen sink” strategy. Also integral to the Clinton campaign’s continued viability was a constant shifting of goal posts.

In both Iraq and in the Clinton campaign, however, these late strategies were only at best capable of creating veneers of progress and success.

With Iraq and the surge, as has been often posited by those not willing to go with the Administration’s narrative, the surge was not as responsible for the decrease in violence in Iraq as was the ceasefire of the Mahdi Army. More important, however, was the fact that neither the surge nor the drop in violence could easily hide the lack of political reconciliation that had always been the prime objective of the surge. Even now we find political reconciliation out of reach.

For Clinton, despite a newly reinvigorated campaign, an aggressive strategy, and a persistent push for Super Delegates, the one thing that remained untouched was Obama’s insurmountable leads among the metric that mattered the most: delegates.

Even the popular vote which, for a time, had become a driving narrative of the Clinton campaign, ultimately became an unattainable goal for Team Clinton without the addition of Florida and Michigan, both states whose standing are heavily disputed at best, though based upon the rulings of the DNC, that is a generous classification.

And so here we are; possibly at the end of this ordeal. Unlike Iraq, this Democratic primary does have a deadline and a “withdrawal date”, and we have the luxury of understanding what happened. So why did Clinton’s campaign so closely track with the trajectory of Iraq’s war? Perhaps because both were waged with similar mentalities.

Hubris, for one, played a factor in both. This is not meant as a jab at Hillary, please don’t misunderstand me. She had plenty of hubris in the beginning, and she was well within her right to believe she was the heavy favorite because she most definitely was. Over a year ago when we were first getting a feel for the Democratic field, Hillary Clinton was the hands down favorite who led in just about every poll by incredible margins.

Just as one would think that the US was the hands down favorite going into Iraq as a result of a far superior military.

Coupled with this is the adherence to old paradigms. For Iraq, that would be that US military might trumps all. For Clinton, that would be that her standing within the party, her foundation from high powered support to an awesome fundraising mechanism, could not be matched.

Both paradigms, however shifted.

And incompetence. This condemnation I do not lay completely on Clinton’s shoulders, but instead I feel that the upper echelon of her campaign should bear the brunt of this burden. But one could hardly call the likes of Howie Wolfson, Mark Penn, and Harold Ickes anything but ham-handed. Indeed, it would be Maggie Williams who would bring sanity and competence to a campaign that had everything on its side and didn’t seem to know what to do with it.

Unfortunately, just as the surge was too little too late (an extra thirty thousand troops after the fact could not make up for ignoring General Shinseki’s advice of putting several hundred thousand pairs of boots on the ground), Maggie Williams’ addition to the fold was also too little too late, and most definitely not enough to instantly counteract the negative effects the rest of the crew had on Clinton’s chances at the presidency.

But again, I bring this up not to tap dance on graves, and not to mean disrespect. Indeed, there are most definitely lessons to be learned from the Clinton campaign and those too can be analogous to other things in life and politics. For the sake of this argument, I think the biggest lesson to be learned here is that an overconfidence in one’s own capabilities is not enough to engineer success.

What Obama did that Clinton didn’t do was look at the situation before him objectively as opposed to through a lens muddled with preconceived paradigms and an overappreciation of what he was capable of and had at his disposal. This was what allowed him to formulate a successful strategy against a seemingly unbeatable foe.

He approached it as an underdog, but instead of doing so like the valiant martyr who doesn’t have a chance, he and his team actually studied the system and devised pathways to victory. Had Clinton taken the same approach, even with her superior advantages taken into account, she would have noticed that the big state and firewall strategy that she was about to employ had a chink in the armor.

That chink, of course, being the method by which delegates were meted out based upon vote proportions.

Given that the electoral college is a winner take all system, the strategy will have to be adjusted some, but the premise remains the same; expect nothing, take everything.

And that’s how we’re going to beat McCain in the fall.

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