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What went wrong

Hillary Clinton did everything right by Washington rules -- and that was her big mistake.

June 08, 2008|Michael Crowley | Michael Crowley is a senior editor at the New Republic.

On Wednesday afternoon, Hillary Rodham Clinton visited her Arlington, Va., campaign headquarters and disclosed that she would finally concede her long primary fight. That same afternoon, a fierce storm system developed over northern Virginia and unleashed a tempest of high winds, driving rain and even a tornado. The heavenly outburst was a fittingly symbolic expression of the anger and frustration that defined the last days of a candidate who once seemed to have a lock on the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

It was also fitting that Clinton decided to fold her cards in Arlington, just across the Potomac River from Washington. Of the many possible culprits -- gender, tactical blunders, a hostile media -- behind her defeat at the hands of a previously unknown first-term senator from Illinois, the biggest may be geographical. Clinton was, more than anything else, a victim of Washington. The inside-Washington mentality that shaped her campaign from the start proved to be its undoing.

To understand this, flash back to the early 1990s. Bill and Hillary Clinton, like Barack Obama today, first ran against Washington, promising to shake up and reform the city's insular political system. Receiving these irreverent young Arkansans with suspicion, the capital's mandarins warned them to learn the ropes quick. "Washington has its own totems and taboos," the Georgetown hostess and former Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn wrote. "You have to run against 'inside Washington' to get in, and you have to become 'inside Washington' to stay in."

The Clintons had trouble heeding this advice at first, as Bill's presidency opened with a flurry of ham-handed screw-ups, from a string of bungled nominations to an accidental political war over gays in the military. Hillary's healthcare reform plan was the biggest disaster -- not least because she and Bill poorly managed Congress, the interest groups and the media.

Eventually, the Clintons found their footing. Bill learned to handle Capitol Hill. Hillary smoothed her abrasive public image. And although the impeachment saga nearly destroyed them, it also gave the Clintons a PhD in how scandal, the media and partisan politics interact.

By the time she began running for president in 2006, Hillary Clinton had heeded Quinn's advice to "become inside Washington." From her new perch as a senator, she mastered the Washington political game. She assiduously cultivated the city's most impressive team of operatives, policy wonks and fundraisers. She even helped to create a think tank (the Center for American Politics) and a media-watchdog website (MediaMatters.org). Her communications staff was notorious for its hardball tactics, yet it had a sophisticated understanding of modern media. Clinton's aides even cultivated a sub rosa relationship with the Internet gossip maven Matt Drudge, who first revealed the Monica Lewinsky affair.

With the help of her savvy Washington team, Clinton also carefully shaped her political image according to clever Beltway rules. She softened her partisan edges by cooperating with hard-core Republicans such as Tom DeLay, then the House majority leader. She took symbolic stands designed to appeal to moderate voters, like her support for a ban on flag burning.

Most fatefully, Clinton backed the Senate's 2002 Iraq war resolution. At the time, Washington wisdom held that no future Democratic presidential candidate could afford to oppose using force against Saddam Hussein. Top Democratic strategists -- especially Clinton's pollster and strategy guru, Mark Penn -- argued vehemently after 9/11 that Democrats had to appear "strong" on national security or be steamrolled by jingoistic Republicans. Although there's some evidence that Clinton may have supported the war resolution on principle, there's little question that politics made the vote easier for her and that many voters saw her as having acted out of political calculation, which helped set up Clinton to be criticized as forever calculating.

That momentous vote on Oct. 11, 2002, would set the tone for the entire Democratic primary campaign. It was Obama's opposition to the war in the fall of 2002 that enabled him to mount a credible challenge against Clinton in the first place. With the campaign ready to begin in earnest in late 2006, the Democratic field lacked a credible candidate who could claim to have seen the Iraq disaster coming. This was Obama's opening, his initial rationale for running.

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