How Inevitable is Hillary?
Guest Perspective/Former state Sen. Burt Cohen
The campaign was pumped. Between 4,000 and 5,000 people jammed a campaign rally in Portsmouth, featuring the undisputed Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton. And oh yes, her husband, former President Bill Clinton was also there.
The important political question is: what percentage of the crowd came to see Bill Clinton, and how many of the crowd are supporting Hillary Clinton?
I've spoken to many people who were there. My unscientific, yet surprisingly consistent sample revealed that they all went to see the former president, and also, sure, also take a look at Hillary. Each came away either still undecided or still supporting their candidate. For most I spoke to, that was Sen. Barack Obama.
At a well attended fund-raiser for John Lynch, the governor asked for a show of hands, who had chosen a candidate. Three hands in a crowd of about 70 opinion leaders went up.
The Labor Day corner has been turned. As the summer ends, the limited universe of activists has pretty much settled into one camp or another. Now the real campaign, the effort to win the life-beyond-politics primary voter begins. For most of us, the New Hampshire priimary has just barely begun.
The road to the White House is littered with summer front-runners. As fall approaches, there is the inevitability factor for Sen. Clinton, but deeper than that, who knows.
One thing Granite State voters, both Democrat and Republican, always look for is authenticity. Many at the rally got the sense that every word was poll tested. I asked a thoughtful Hillary supporter her reason for that support. She said it's because Sen. Clinton knows how to "walk the fine line." That's exactly the point. Merely offending the fewest just doesn't cut it. That's not leadership and people sense it.
Caution sometimes works, but not usually. Former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, with an acknowledged reputation for consistently hewing the middle of the middle, obviously got elected governor three times. But on the other hand, when she served as national co-chairwoman for the Kerry campaign, the general election strategy became balancing on the microscopic center of the proverbial fence.
But being not-George Bush was just not enough. Who exactly was John Kerry? By November, no one knew. Again, authenticity was missing in action and he lost because of it (well, GOP shenanigans in Ohio were also a factor, as was his distancing from running mate Edwards).
Primary voters are hungry to have faith in their leaders restored. We can sense insincerity a mile away. Kerry's handlers did not get this, and it appears Clinton's handlers may be of the same mindset.
All things to all people may still occasionally work, but as 2006 showed, the strategy is less and less effective. What worked last November for people like U.S. Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Paul Hodes was that, after taking a measure of them, voters had no doubt they were for real. This unmistakable authenticity will work for them again in 2008. People respect, and vote for, candidates whom they trust to mean what they say, even if they may not agree on every issue. Trust me, from my own electoral history, I know what I'm talking about.
There is a large degree of theater in politics. If your story line climaxes too early, like in the summer, where are you at the dramatic moment in January when the votes are actually cast? Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Chris Dodd, and Sen. Joe Biden have not peaked too early. There's a lot of drama left in this play.
The presidential primary is wide open. At this point, in September 2003, then-Vt. Gov. Howard Dean looked inevitable. But as that great sage Yogi Berra put it, "It ain't over 'til it's over." It's just beginning.