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Hillary's Diminishing Returns

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

There is dissension in the Hillary Clinton camp. Top aides have been in arguments, shouting back and forth about differences in strategy. Should Clinton come on strong? Should she go negative? Should she be upbeat and positive? Here's my answer: Stop campaigning.

The evidence is overwhelming that since Super Tuesday, the minute that Clinton steps foot in a state, her numbers start to plummet. Of course, Barack Obama has something to do with it. He's a phenomenon, a political version of Roy Hobbs, "The Natural" of Bernard Malamud's wonderful novel, whose physical repose is TV perfect and who will, when the time comes, provide a jarring visual contrast to the much older John McCain. Obama is nearly as good as he thinks he is.

So it could be that Clinton would lose the Democratic nomination even if she were a gifted politician. But she has no such gift. Her smile is strained. She is contained. She seems unknowable, and there is that melancholy Billie Holiday air about her -- all those songs about a suffering woman. Most of us would prefer Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)," the upbeat theme of Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign.

It might seem surprising that Clinton has turned out to be something other than a brilliant campaigner. But consider her record. Back in 1999, she entered the New York Senate race in the manner of Marie Antoinette entering France -- to be ultimately crowned queen. When Clinton announced an interest in running, every other potential Democratic candidate -- Andrew Cuomo, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, even Al Sharpton -- took it as an order to vanish. The strongest of these, Rep. Nita Lowey, graciously stepped aside, as if Clinton was the real McCoy and a six-term member of Congress was an undeserving interloper.

Back then, I wrote that there was "something wacky" about what was happening. Clinton, you might recall, was hardly a New Yorker. No matter. She had never won an election in her adult life. No matter. She was virtually inexperienced on her own. No matter. She was first and foremost the wife of Bill, and for party leaders and hypocritical feminists -- Lowey was a woman, too, for crying out loud -- she just had to be The One.

With the Democratic senatorial nomination in hand, Clinton was set to go up against Rudy Giuliani. This would have been the great matchup between two suits inflated with little but name recognition, but it never came to pass. Giuliani withdrew on account of prostate cancer, and Clinton wound up facing . . . can you remember? It was Rick Lazio. Even so, Clinton did not win really big -- 55.3 percent of the vote. Not a landslide.

Six years later, Clinton ran for reelection. Once again, she had no Democratic opponent, and in the general, she faced a Republican named John Spencer. He was little known before the election, hardly known during it and so forgotten afterward that I expect a segment of the show "Lost" to be devoted to him. Clinton won in a landslide, 67 percent of the vote. But just two years earlier, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) had gotten 71 percent of the vote -- and no one ever mentions him as a presidential candidate. In many ways Clinton is a remarkable woman, but she is not proving to be a remarkable politician.

Big-money Democrats have been on the phone of late, and their conversations have been on how to get Clinton out of the race. Some of these Democrats were tepid Clinton backers to begin with, wishing to go with the presumed winner or responding to the soft extortion of Bill Clinton and his allies. But others were sincerely committed and now fear that the Clintons, she and he, will not know how to lose -- and will take the Democratic Party down with them.

Politics can be ugly, not to mention sad. Broken dreams are strewn across the American landscape. Fred Thompson resigned from "Law & Order." Chris Dodd moved his family from Connecticut to Iowa just for the caucuses. Mitt Romney blew through a fortune. John Edwards campaigned through personal pain. The difference between a presidential candidate and a fool in love is only a matter of Secret Service protection.

For Hillary Clinton, a loss has to be particularly tough. The presidency is not just the ultimate honor for her. It is, as others have suggested, a justification for all she has put up with.

My cards are already on the table. I don't think that Clinton can win the nomination, but even if she does, I don't think she will win the general election. That would become apparent as she starts to campaign in states that have yet to see her. The harder she works, the worse she does.

cohenr@washpost.com


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