Michael Gerson

Those clanking, sputtering and grinding sounds you hear are coming from the Clinton political machine.

Our fundraising, it argues, has never been stronger -- though it is about half of Barack Obama's. Our strategy has assumed these minor setbacks all along -- though senior campaign leadership must be shown the door. Our successes will come in "Ohio and Texas because we know that those are states where they represent the broad electorate in this country" (Hillary Clinton's words) -- which is hardly a valentine to Missouri, Virginia, Minnesota, Colorado and other parts of the nation Clinton must view as flyover territory.

But Clinton's largest problem is not a lack of money or public enthusiasm. It is the lack of a compelling narrative for her campaign.

Most successful presidential runs eventually have an overarching theory: the generational ambitions of John Kennedy's "New Frontier," the rising cultural resentments of Richard Nixon's "Silent Majority," the reviving national confidence of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America."

Obama's appeal is straightforward: getting beyond "the ideological battles that have consumed us for the last 20 years" -- in which Clinton and her husband have been two of the main combatants.

Hillary Clinton's attempt to define a narrative of her own has been hobbled because her campaign is defined by the rejection of rhetoric. Obama's eloquence and idealism are dismissed as "abstract" and a "fairy tale" in contrast to Clinton's experience and policy substance. It is difficult for a campaign to inspire while using "inspiration" as an epithet.

This theory has other drawbacks. As a lawyer, first lady and senator, Clinton has had little actual experience running anything -- except for a White House health-care policy process that was a spectacle of arrogance and ineffectiveness. And on a purely political level, this argument for experience comes at an odd time, when Americans are generally disillusioned with both Democrats and Republicans in Washington.

The challenge for Clinton is that her other options -- the other narratives for her campaign -- are equally flawed:

First, there is Hillary the Fighter. In recent interviews, Clinton has come out swinging with negative attacks -- what she once referred to as "the fun part" of politics. Obama has "questions to answer about his dealings with . . . a big nuclear power company" as well as with "Mr. Rezko." But it is hard to imagine American voters thinking: "If only the Clintons were a little more ruthless, I'd finally support them." It is this very trait -- after a series of racially charged attacks -- that many Americans, including many liberals, found more repulsive than "fun."


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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