Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the Democratic presidential nomination are now anywhere from 5 per cent to 20 per cent. By rights she should be flat on her back, declared the loser by technical knockout. But not only is she standing; she is plunging ahead with a dogged ferocity.
By Sally Bedell Smith
In spite of Barack Obama’s clear advantage in the popular vote and committed delegate tallies – a mathematical dominance unlikely to be reversed even if he loses most of the remaining primary contests – Mrs Clinton says she is being bullied by the “big boys” and vows to stay in the race until the Democratic convention.
Her relentless campaign has inspired reporters variously to compare her, with a mixture of admiration and horror, to the Terminator, a zombie, a cyborg and Anton Chigurh, the malevolent killer in No Country for Old Men. Even the coughing spasms that have seized her with alarming frequency these past few months have become an emblem of her fortitude. After she muscled her way through a foreign policy address, The New Yorker praised her ability to “suppress the coughing through sheer will”.
So what makes Mrs Clinton run, even as her win-at-all-cost strategy threatens her party’s chances against John McCain, the Republican candidate? The answer lies partly in her innately combative nature, the quality that drew Bill Clinton to her when “she was in my face from the start”. She is equally famous for a preternatural focus and what one of her friends called her “tunnel vision”, along with a determination so unshakeable that her husband once told a visitor to the Oval Office: “I might as well try to lift that desk up and throw it through the window as to change her mind.” To reach her goals, she long ago learnt to embrace any tactic, however destructive. As her mother noted, Hillary does “everything she has to do to get along and get ahead”.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Mrs Clinton’s tall tale about dodging snipers at Tuzla airport in Bosnia was her unwillingness to acknowledge that she had described her supposed derring-do to at least four audiences. This was no slip of the tongue created by sleep deprivation, as she claimed. Her capacity for self-delusion is nothing new. During the 1992 campaign, when ABC’s Sam Donaldson played audio tapes of Gennifer Flowers, her husband’s lover, saying “Goodbye darling” and Mr Clinton replying “Goodbye baby”, her reaction was: “Oh, that’s not true.” “Didn’t happen?” Mr Donaldson pressed. “Of course not,” she replied.
For decades Mrs Clinton has thought of herself as a woman of destiny. Even as a little girl she would stand “in a patch of sunlight” pretending “there were heavenly movie cameras watching my every move”. She willingly served in her husband’s shadow, in spite of the humiliations he inflicted on her with his womanising, on the assumption she would have her turn.
Back in 1974, Mr Clinton said she “could be president one day” and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, one of their close friends, often remarked that when the Clintons were “dead and gone, each of them is going to be buried next to a president of the United States”. Mrs Clinton’s private sense that she was entitled to the presidency has expanded to the idea that the public owes her this ultimate prize as well.
She also benefits from a kind of political voodoo that makes her seem invincible, even to usually clear-eyed analysts who do the delegate maths over and over and keep finding she loses. The Clintons’ narrow escapes from political extinction haunt their memories like tribal drums in the night: from the suicide of their close friend Vincent Foster to an endless parade of scandals. In response they have built a fearsome political machine that attacks enemies and cuts loose friends they believe have wronged them.
A vital piece of this mythology is that, with the exception of Mr Clinton’s second race for governor in 1980, the Clintons do not lose in politics. Running for office is what the “Billary” tag team does; it is the glue that binds them together– “in her DNA as much as his”, according to their old friend Tom Siebert. The duo have spent their adult lives perfecting the permanent campaign, mastering its dark arts even as they went about the everyday business of governing.
Mrs Clinton has made a point of saying: “There are no do-overs in life.” Yet she and her husband are seeking the ultimate do-over, another term or two in the Oval Office. Both are deeply invested in the sequel: Mrs Clinton is driven to fulfil her destiny, and Mr Clinton covets a chance to burnish his legacy and purify Clintonism.
But this time the dynamic is different, and therein lies the catch. To win in 2008, the Clintons have had to reverse their roles of Bill the candidate and Hillary his chief adviser and advocate. The demands of an unexpectedly tight campaign have brought out the worst in both of them, dragging their popularity ratings to new lows.
The virtuoso politician who feeds on the adulation of the rope-line suddenly finds himself playing an off-key second fiddle. The methodical, behind-the-scenes chief of staff finds herself centre stage, her flatlander voice betraying a harsh edge as she experiments with slogans and personalities.
Mrs Clinton’s political mettle had never been tested. Her opponent in her 2000 Senate race was a lightweight and she had token opposition in 2006. Her candidacy for president was based on the assumption that she would face a weak field and again coast to victory.
Perhaps what propels Mrs Clinton more than anything is a determination to prove she can be as good at politics as her husband, who she once said “makes it look so easy”. But months on the hustings have shown she lacks his legendary political talents.
In any other year, just being Hillary Clinton might have sufficed. But she is up against a man whose political gifts, ironically enough, are often compared with those of William Jefferson Clinton.
The writer is the author of For Love of Politics: Inside the Clinton White House (Random House)