Hillary Clinton's Ruthless Campaign
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Democrats have long complained that they need a presidential candidate who knows how to fight and win.
On Tuesday night, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., flew to Florida for a "victory rally" in a state that was awarding no delegates, because it was penalized by national party officials for holding an unauthorized early primary. Last summer, she and the other candidates pledged not to campaign in the Sunshine State. Still, Clinton held the rally, declaring victory on national television. Millions of people in the 22 states who will vote next Tuesday probably saw her, not knowing the Florida vote was moot. And in Florida, Clinton pledged to seat its delegates at the Democratic National Convention.
"Hillary won the highest turnout Democratic primary in Florida history," her website gushed on a page giving daily talking points to supporters. "Hillary received more votes in Florida than Sen. (John) McCain, the winner of the Republican primary. Hillary also received more votes in Florida alone than Sen. (Barack) Obama received in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina."
If Clinton's boast makes you grimace -- she also charged that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was first to break the DNC's no-campaigning pledge by running a national cable ad that was seen in Florida and by getting good press after winning big in South Carolina -- then these brazen moves give a very clear view of Clinton's leadership style. Regardless of her center-left positions on issues, Hillary Clinton is fighting to win.
In fact, there may be no better illustration of the divide-and-conquer style of politics that Obama seeks to overcome than the tactics of his most aggressive rival, Clinton.
"The (Florida) vote turned out to be more than symbolic," Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist said in an email Tuesday night, spinning the result. "Well over 1.5 million Democrats cast their ballots, more than twice the number of voters who came out to vote in the 2004 primary. Most of the voters in Florida fully expect that their votes will not be wasted again -- they (expect) to have a voice at the convention, and Hillary has asked her delegates to support their being seated."
Penn omitted any mention of labor union organizing for Clinton in Florida, which could be construed as a violation of the no-campaigning pledge. In contrast, Obama did not use major surrogates in the state. While no campaign can control all of its supporters, candidate Obama stayed away.
Such finessing of the nominating process was not Clinton's first attempt to win delegates with the help of state party officials. In New Hampshire, Democratic officials helped to block Obama volunteers from observing who signed in to vote at precincts -- thwarting their get-out-the-vote efforts. In Nevada, party officials turned away blue-collar voters at precincts in Las Vegas casinos that were thought to be Obama strongholds, informing clearly upset voters they had to work an afternoon shift that day to participate. Clinton's campaign also gave out a manual telling precinct captains to lock caucus doors a half-hour early. Obama's campaign formally complained to party officials.
But the Clinton campaign does more than bend the rules. It also knows how to distort the results to declare it is en route to winning the nomination. In Nevada, state party officials announced Clinton won the popular vote among its caucus goers, and the national media duly reported she won the state. But that afternoon, it became clear that Obama actually had won one more delegate than Clinton. There was no correction by party officials. The media mostly reported she won, confusing the popular vote with the delegate count.
The same spinning was used in Florida, where Penn staged a victory rally after the vote -- even though exit polls found voters who had not turned in early ballots were nearly split between Clinton and Obama.
"This result comes after Sen. Obama ran TV commercials that reached Florida homes and after the enormous publicity he received for South Carolina and for the Ted Kennedy endorsement," Penn said in his statement that painted the no-delegate state into a major victory while smearing Obama's gains. "Any (Obama) momentum seemed to run out today."
Seasoned and cynical political observers will say presidential politics is not for anyone who is naÃ¯ve enough to run purely on principle. They say it is not about being honest; it is about winning. And they say the Democratic nominating contest will be a cakewalk compared to the contest with Republicans in the fall, necessitating a strong and seasoned candidate to retake the presidency.
But the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination is no ordinary contest. Obama is running a principle-based, grass-roots campaign that rejects established and cynical Washington ways of campaigning to win. So far, Obama's appeal to bring out the best in Americans based on shared common interests has been successful in attracting new voters, from young people to independents to Republicans. In short, his run threatens the Democratic careerists who have lined up for Clinton.
Just look at the response in New York to Obama's endorsement by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., where the local affiliate of the National Organization for Women accused him of "betraying women" by not standing with Clinton. That was an outburst by a longtime Clinton ally who seeks to share in the spoils after her candidate claws her way to victory, by any means necessary.
Hillary Clinton may be the ruthless campaigner that Democrats lacked in the past two presidential elections. Deliberately moving toward the nomination step by step and manipulating the process along the way, she may know what it takes to win. The question raised by the Obama campaign, however, is whether that slippery style of politics is where Democrats -- and Americans -- want to go.
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and co-author of What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election , with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman (The New Press, 2006).