NASHUA, NH — The empire strikes back.
Throughout the morning, afternoon, and early evening of Election Day in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton aides looked grim and gloomily moaned about a campaign that appeared to have been derailed, if not defeated. Expecting to lose by as much as 10 points, they wondered aloud what could be done to stop Barack Obama, the self-proclaimed "hope-monger," who only days earlier had seemingly rewritten modern American politics. Then the actual results started coming in, and Clinton was reborn. After being trounced in Iowa, the wife of the "comeback kid" of 1992 had managed a resurrection far more impressive than her spouse had achieved sixteen years earlier. He had merely overcome news of an extramarital affair; she had beaten back a new brand of politics.
Her surprising win—based partly on a strong performance among women and working-class voters—came after she had spent days decrying Obama's lack of experience (a legitimate point) and denouncing him as a hypocrite (not a legitimate point). With Clinton's victory, the main question of the Democratic race returns to what it had been prior to Iowa: can he beat her? But the small 3-percent margin in her favor suggested that the battle between her conventional politics and his unconventional politics has not been definitively resolved.
Throughout the campaign, Obama and Clinton have been operating on two different levels. Her playbook has been by-the-numbers: bash the Bush administration, offer red-meat policy proposals, sell her experience, talents, and strength—and, of course, raise tons of money and assemble a powerhouse organization. Obama has done all of that but within a different context. At the start, he and his advisers took one big step back and tried to envision what the electorate would be yearning for in 2008—not just the Democrats but also independents and those Republicans who did not fancy the taste of the Bush-Cheney Kool-Aid.
Clinton was practicing standard supply-side politics: push the candidate. Obama was looking at the demand side. He and his aides believed there was a desire for a break from politics as usual. After all, there had been a decade and a half of bitter politics, as well as several years of governmental incompetence (and worse), care of the Bush administration. Opinion polls suggested deep popular dissatisfaction with the state and future of the country. The Iraq War—and its unending fallout—had soured many independents and some Republicans. And the current regime was not doing much for anyone worried about economic security, health care, or global warming. So for many Americans, the government wasn't working, and the political system was broken. They wanted change. For a potential national candidate, what was the answer? A candidacy that offered solutions and leadership that would transcend the same-old/same-old. That was Obama's theory: give 'em both a platform and, yes, hope.
In Iowa, it worked. Obama attracted newcomers to politics. He persuaded people that he had character, root principles, and the desire (if not the ability) to rise above the bickering of Washington to accomplish grand goals—that by electing him the voters themselves could be implementers of profound change. (A President Obama certainly would represent more change than a second President Clinton.) He offered them not merely a choice but the chance to be part of a cause.
In New Hampshire, his crusade crashed into prosaic political reality. Though the state—with its high percentage of upscale and well-educated voters—seemed ready-made for another Obama triumph, the Clintons had deep roots there (which was not the case in Iowa). And after being upset in Iowa, the Clinton campaign focused on its core supporters. "At Clinton headquarters, it was all women all the time," said one Democratic official. And exit polls showed that women made up 57 percent of the Democratic vote and broke dramatically for Clinton.