Hillary Clinton barely lets a day pass without asserting that she is the more battle-hardened, experienced and reliable of the Democratic presidential candidates.
But the campaign she’s running continues to indicate otherwise.
The flap that culminated in the departure of Mark Penn as her chief strategist this week was notable mainly for the ineptitude it exposed: that the first lady had placed such trust in the judgment of a man who saw fit to work with a private client seeking to advance a position diametrically opposed to hers.
Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, increasingly hard-pressed for cash, has paid dearly for Mr. Penn’s expertise. His company had received $11 million by the end of February. Another $2.5 million was due.
The Penn furor closely followed the controversy engendered by Mrs. Clinton’s vivid descriptions of nonexistent sniper fire during her 1996 trip to Bosnia. Mrs. Clinton’s conduct on that issue, like Mr. Penn’s in relation to the Colombian government, was blundering and amateurish.
The Clinton campaign has been bedeviled by strategic misjudgments and poor planning for much of its existence. Prior to Mr. Penn’s latest misstep and the exposure of her Bosnia fibs, Mrs. Clinton had already had to lend her campaign $5 million. She had lurched from one theme to another. And she had felt the need to push out the original campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle.
It is difficult to know, therefore, what is more surprising: that Mrs. Clinton and her surrogates continue to place such emphasis on her supposedly unimpeachable competence, or that this argument has found some traction with voters.
In a recently released television ad targeting voters in Indiana, which holds its primary on May 6, Senator Evan Bayh proclaimed Mrs. Clinton to be “strong,” “seasoned” and possessed of “a spine of steel.”
Exit polls from the two most recent states won by Mrs. Clinton suggested many voters felt the same way. In Ohio, 60 percent of voters believed Mrs. Clinton was more qualified to be commander in chief than Barack Obama. Of the 29 percent who valued experience as the most important quality in a candidate, 94 percent said they voted for Mrs. Clinton.
In Texas, 55 percent preferred Mrs. Clinton as commander in chief, and 91 percent of those who prized experience above all else voted for her.
As she has stressed her own credentials, Mrs. Clinton and her allies have attacked Mr. Obama for his purported lack of readiness, whether on issues of national security or on his ability to defend himself in a robust campaign.
They have at various points suggested that Mr. Obama has been insufficiently “vetted.” And, back in February, Mrs. Clinton asserted: “One of us is ready to be commander in chief in a dangerous world. … One of us has faced serious Republican opposition in the past. And one of us is ready to do it again.”
Such bravado is part and parcel of any campaign. But the message Mrs. Clinton seeks to convey has not been supported by the actual follow-through.
Mr. Obama, the alleged callow upstart, has thus far outfought and out-organized his older rival.
Mrs. Clinton cleaved close to the prosaic and poll-driven strategy promoted by Mr. Penn. Mr. Obama and key aides like David Axelrod sensed the appetite for a more expansively presented vision and met it.
Mrs. Clinton more or less ignored many caucus states. Mr. Obama poured resources into them and thereby ran up the lead in pledged delegates that the former first lady now strains to overcome, almost certainly in vain.
Mrs. Clinton initially concentrated on raising money from big donors. Mr. Obama built a wide network of small-dollar contributors. His fund-raising operation has left Mrs. Clinton’s floundering in its wake.
There was, of course, at least one occasion when Mrs. Clinton’s dark prophesies about Mr. Obama’s lack of preparedness seemed to be borne out. The emergence of Jeremiah Wright’s toxic sermons looked at one point as if it could capsize Mr. Obama’s candidacy.
But the response in that instance—Mr. Obama’s speech on race in Philadelphia—was timely, proportionate and apparently effective. It demonstrated, if nothing else, a sturdiness that undermined Clinton’s central critique of the senator from Illinois—that, for all his fancy rhetorical footwork, he has a glass jaw.
This weekend, Mrs. Clinton again raised the specter of the “Republican attack machine” as she addressed a dinner held by the Montana Democratic Party.
“I want you to know that I’m ready,” she said. “I’ve been in there, in their attack mode for a long time. I know what it’s like to stumble. I know what it means to get knocked down. But I’ve never stayed down. I never will.”
An ability to get back up after being knocked down is all well and good. But Mrs. Clinton and the people around her have been tripping themselves up throughout this campaign.
There are only so many times you can do that and still make a selling point of your sure-footedness.