It is Hillary Rodham Clinton's misfortune to have spent a long and honorable career building up the experience that would qualify her to be a serious candidate for president of the United States -- only to come to the apex of that career just as the nation decided that experience isn't everything. She squeaked out a victory on Tuesday, but across the wintry plains of Iowa and the unseasonably mild hills of New Hampshire, large numbers of voters in the past five days have affirmed that they are looking forward, not back, and thus swarming to Barack Obama's thoughtful, eloquent expression of hope and away from Clinton's call of experience and readiness.
With two strong showings in two white states where Clinton once led by large margins, Obama has decisively rebutted questions about his electability. It was Clinton who challenged voters to consider whether her Democratic rival is ready to serve, who suggested that a vote for Obama was a gamble. To her chagrin, many voters in Iowa and New Hampshire were thrilled to take that risk. And yet, she rebounded with vigor, and demonstrated enough appeal to make a run to Feb. 5, when this race likely will be decided.
Some of the same dynamics are at work among Republicans. Suddenly Mitt Romney, a second-generation politician, looks far less appealing than the flinty independence of John McCain. There, the politics of change are murkier, complicated by McCain's enduring popularity in New Hampshire, Mike Huckabee's popularity with Christian conservatives and Romney's inability to convince voters that he is a man of genuine conviction. Still, for Republicans as well as Democrats, it's a tough year to be a candidate whose principal credential is experience. Indeed, for Republicans it's a tough year to stand for anything, as the GOP remains in search of a standard-bearer.
Clinton's fade from front-runner to mere contender is not the result of her brief and dignified display of emotion on the campaign trail Monday. To the contrary, that episode may have helped spark her late turnaround, especially among women, for despite a shamefully sexist attempt to turn her remarks at a New Hampshire coffee shop into doubts about her fitness to serve, Clinton's comments revealed the passion she has for her country and the depth of her political beliefs. "I just don't want to see us fall backwards," she said, her voice tight. "This is very personal for me." She will be a stronger candidate going forward if she continues to express herself in such personal terms.
For Clinton, the trouble is not emotion but, perversely, President Bush. So badly has this president performed that he has discredited not just his own administration but the very idea of Washington knowledge. Voters frustrated by the war in Iraq and anxious about the economy have turned on the man who brought us those troubles and on experience itself -- and thus on Clinton. She still has time, but now she must confront an electorate that has its doubts -- and that has identified Obama with the future and Clinton with the past.