Friday, July 27, 2007

The Uphill Struggle

Published: July 27, 2007

Laconia, N.H.

The biggest story of this presidential campaign is the success of Hillary Clinton. Six months ago many people thought she was too brittle and calculating and that voters would never really bond with her. But now she seems to offer the perfect combination of experience and change.

She’s demonstrating that it really helps to have lived in the White House. She can draw on a range of experiences unmatched by her rivals. She’s dominated most of the debates. She’s transformed her position on Iraq without a ripple. Her measured, statistic-filled speeches rarely inspire passion, but always confidence.

Her success has put incredible pressure on Barack Obama. He continues to attract huge crowds and huge money, but he also continues to make rookie mistakes, like saying he’d talk with Hugo Ch├ívez. He’s forced to campaign on the defensive now, knowing that each misstep reinforces the “He’s too young” story line.

Clinton’s performancewill also have an effect on the Republican race, though many Republicans are only now beginning to realize it. When you ask Republican presidential candidates about Clinton, a smile of professional respect comes over their faces.

But their world is transformed. The one thing Republicans had going for them was the head-to-heads. Bush, the war and the party could all be unpopular, but individual G.O.P. candidates beat Clinton because her negatives were so high. But she is changing that. People who’ve said they would never vote for her will take a second look once they see her campaign.

That means in 2008, Hillary won’t save the G.O.P. An orthodox Republican will not beat an orthodox Democrat. If Republicans want to have any chance next year, they have to go for broke.

You can see hints of the bad environment at Republican campaign events. A city councilman in Franklin, N.H., introduced Mitt Romney by saying that America is looking for a leader “to take us out of the shadows.” A questioner in New London asked how Romney will bring honesty back to the White House. A questioner at a McCain event in Keene charged, “We’ve had 16 years of draft dodgers in the White House!”

These are Republicans talking about seven years of Republican rule.

Then there’s the issues. Iraq will still be a shooting war in 2008. Health care is emerging as the biggest domestic concern. This is natural Democratic turf. So as I travel around watching the Republican candidates, I’m looking for signs that they’re willing to try something unorthodox. Eighty percent of the time, what I see is the Dole campaign: Republican candidates uttering their normal principles — small government, military strength, strong families — and heading inexorably toward defeat.

But there are flashes. There are times when they break out of the conventional trench warfare and touch the anger and longing that define this historical moment.

One occurred at a McCain event Wednesday. In Washington, the McCain campaign is considered dead, but somebody seems to have forgotten to tell the people up here. A man at one packed event rose to vent his outrage at Washington. He ignited something in McCain, who started talking about what he’d learned from the failure of immigration reform. McCain worked himself up, recounting one failure and disgrace after another, culminating finally with an angry bellow, “Nobody trusts us to do what we say we’re going to do!”

It wasn’t a Howard Beale “Network” moment, but it touched something. The crowd was with him all the way.

The other flash I saw was at a Romney event at the Lincoln Financial Group in Concord. Romney had slipped away from the policy chunks of his stump speech and was talking about his success in business and in running the Olympics. He was talking about how you assemble a team of people with complementary skills. How you use data and analysis to replace opinion. How you set benchmarks and how often you should perform self-evaluation.

It wasn’t impassioned or angry (he doesn’t do anger). But it was Romney losing himself in something he really cares about, and it opened up a vista of how government might operate.

The McCain and Romney flashes weren’t about policy. They weren’t part of the normal Republican vs. Democratic dynamic. They were about leadership, honor and intelligence. If Republicans are going to have a chance, it’ll be because, by focusing on the state of American politics, they reshape the battleground under everyone’s feet.