On the Friday before her resurrection, Hillary Clinton seemed exhausted, played out. She attended a funeral in Dallas for a policeman who had been killed in a traffic accident while accompanying her motorcade. Her campaign plane seemed funereal as well, reporters and staff sick the dry, incestuous campaign coughs reverberating through the fuselage and spent after the most intense eight-week run in the history of American politics. She wandered into Waco, Texas, that afternoon, uninspiring before an unimpressive crowd. In San Antonio that night, her stump speech collapsed into unstructured chaos. She yelled hoary Democratic clichés at the crowd "Health care should be a right, not a privilege!" and it was easy to assume that she had thrown in the towel, that this was coming to an end.
And then something happened. From a distance it seemed that her charming, self-deprecating appearance on Saturday Night Live and SNL's reprise of a debate skit in which MSNBC moderators gang up on her might have changed the zeitgeist. "Do I really laugh like that?" she asked her doppelgänger Amy Poehler, whose Clinton laugh resembles Clinton's laugh only in its awkwardness. Poehler nodded, laughing, and Clinton's "Yeah, well ..." response seemed more spontaneous than anything she had done on the stump in a month of electoral massacres. If nothing else, SNL had tapped into the slow boil that many of Clinton's female supporters had experienced during Obama's February that feeling of taking a backseat to the egos of others who might not work as hard or know as much as they did. A feminine fury was abroad in the land; on March 4, women represented a staggering 59% and 57% of the Democratic electorates in Ohio and Texas, respectively.
But there were more prosaic, political things working to Clinton's advantage as well. Tiny fissures were beginning to appear in Obama's shining armor. I thought he won the Texas and Ohio debates with his elegant counterpunching and cool demeanor, but I was wrong: Clinton's policy details her specificity and passion on health insurance during the 16-min. volley with Obama that was later, foolishly, derided by the media apparently conveyed a degree of caring and preparation that seemed more reliable than her opponent's shiny intellect and rhetoric. On the ground in Texas and Ohio, she began to seem more real than he did.
Outside the debates, there were the first sprigs of evidence that Obama was a politician like any other. His association with the shady Chicago developer Antoin Rezko was almost benign compared with Bill and Hillary Clinton's buckraking, past and present especially the ex-President's cornucopia of sleazy companions in recent years but Rezko's suspicious visage was plastered all over the evening news on a nightly basis. It was not good that Obama had consulted with the guy to buy a roomier plot for the Senator's Chicago home, even if Obama had paid market price for it and pronounced the move "boneheaded" in retrospect. There was also Obama's strange NAFTA flap with the Canadians, in which one of his top economic advisers assured America's northern neighbor accurately, no doubt that Obama's anti-NAFTA ranting was just "political maneuvering" and shouldn't be taken seriously. The problem there wasn't merely that the North American Free Trade Agreement is (wrongly) considered synonymous with economic ruin in Ohio and not an issue on which a politician wants to be caught fudging but also that the Obama campaign had spent days denying a story that was obviously true.
There was another issue bubbling, which I hesitate to raise because it is largely scurrilous. It has to do with Obama's patriotism. There is a segment of the American populace that just can't get past his name. There are Internet sleaze purveyors a few, sadly, with roots in the Jewish community who have exploited this fact to spread slanderous nonsense about Obama. Hillary Clinton disgraced herself by playing into these innuendos by telling 60 Minutes that Obama isn't Islamic "as far as I know." Over the past few weeks, though, both Barack and Michelle Obama have given ammunition to the smear artists. Michelle's moment was her extremely unfortunate statement that the success of her husband's campaign had made her "proud of my country" for the first time in her adult life. The Senator's moment came in the Ohio debate when he played political word games before rejecting the support of the bigot Louis Farrakhan. The hesitation was noticeable and unacceptable. There are other guilt-by-association problems floating out there: the occasional over-the-top racial statements by Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright; the fact that Obama has been described as "friendly" with 1960s dilettante-terrorist William Ayers. It seemed clear on primary night that Obama was aware of this potential problem, as patriotism replaced hope as a theme of his concession speech. He echoed John McCain in citing Abraham Lincoln, and called America "the last best hope on Earth." That was the only "hope" he mentioned a fascinating calibration.
I'm not so sure that the other oft-cited cause of Obama's stumble Clinton's ad featuring the phone ringing in the White House at 3 a.m., which the Obama campaign called fearmongering was all that effective. Until last week, Clinton had not spent any time at all exploiting her knowledge of military affairs and establishing herself as a strong Commander in Chief. In any case, Obama's lightning response you want someone who was right about Iraq answering that phone seemed devastatingly good. Even better was McCain's: if you want someone really experienced on national-security issues to answer the phone, that would be me.