'It's the economy, stupid," said James Carville, summing up Bill Clinton's 1992 win over George H.W. Bush. Bush started out with incumbent status and an impressive resume, but he never managed to wrap his mind around the fact of the recession. In the end, he lost to Clinton -- the candidate from nowhere.
Sixteen years later, it's Clinton's wife who's found herself in the elder Bush's position. Hillary Rodham Clinton began the Democratic primary with a famous name, thousands of Democrats who owed their careers to her husband, an enviable war chest and scores of superdelegates in her pocket before the race even began.
All the same, she lost. To a guy few had heard of four years ago. A black guy with the unpropitious name of Barack Hussein Obama, who had no money, no superdelegates and no political machine. But this week, he won, fair and square.
How did Clinton go from inevitable to irrelevant in six months? If Carville were still at the top of his game, he'd be telling Clinton: It's Iraq, stupid. In more ways than one.
Start with the obvious. The Democratic electorate was antiwar from the get-go -- yet Clinton voted in 2002 to authorize the use of force in Iraq. So did John Edwards, but he later offered heartfelt apologies for his vote. Clinton never got beyond a mealy-mouthed "mistakes have been made" non-apology. Obama wasn't in the Senate in 2002, but he managed to make the right call on Iraq.
Over time, Clinton adopted strong antiwar policies -- but in February 2007, she irritably insisted to a New Hampshire audience that "if the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that [2002 Iraq] vote or has said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from." Voters across the country took the hint.
In the January Iowa caucuses, Clinton only took a third of the pledged delegates; Obama and Edwards, perceived as more staunchly antiwar, cleaned up the remaining two-thirds. In New Hampshire, Clinton took nine delegates; Obama and Edwards took 13 between them. And so it went. Even in many of the states Clinton won, the "not-Clinton" vote was substantial.
But Clinton's Iraq problem went beyond her 2002 vote and her failure to truly repudiate it. She gradually sharpened her critique of President Bush's Iraq policies -- but ironically, as time wore on, the resemblances between her campaign style and Bush's Iraq strategy become eerie and striking. Like Bush and his Iraq campaign, Clinton, astonishingly, had no clear battle plan beyond the first weeks. Like Bush, she thought victory was inevitable -- she'd stun her opponents with shock and awe, and by Super Tuesday, the Democratic electorate would greet her as their liberator.
As in Iraq, it didn't work out. Shock and awe fizzled: Obama took Iowa and held his own on Super Tuesday. The insurgency spread like wildfire -- by mid-February, Obama was riding a wave of grass-roots support that Clinton had never prepared for.
By late February, Obama had built up a pledged delegate advantage virtually impossible for Clinton to eliminate, but Clinton's campaign responded to bad news in the race just as the Bush administration had responded to bad news from Iraq.
Staff loyalty was valued over staff truth-telling, so the boss was kept in a bubble, shielded from harsh truths. Change strategy? Nonsense, no need -- we're winning! Inconvenient facts on the ground? No problem; ignore the reality! Or perhaps we'll try a surge -- too little too late. Rules, regulations or laws getting in the way? Those don't apply to us.
Thus, the Clinton campaign insisted that caucuses shouldn't count, that Clinton "really" led in the popular vote (true if you use fuzzy Clintonesque math), that the Democratic National Committee rulings on Michigan and Florida's delegates shouldn't be honored, and so on. So much for the rule of law!
Reality-based thinking, that Democratic rallying cry, was also jettisoned. As late as Tuesday night, when Obama clinched the nomination, Clinton spokesman Terry McAuliffe was introducing Clinton as "the next president of the United States."
Maybe it was her husband's influence. Bill Clinton famously said that in times of uncertainty, "wrong and strong" beats "weak and right."
But Hillary Clinton should know better. The Democrats are in a position to retake the White House precisely because so many Americans finally got sick of George W. Bush, who exemplifies the "wrong and strong" approach.
But let's be reality-based thinkers. "Wrong and strong" eventually leaves us weaker, because wrong is still wrong. And the thousands of dead in Iraq are still dead.
And Hillary Clinton still isn't the Democratic Party's nominee.