Hard to Be Happy in Camp Hillary

Translation: This should have been over with already. This wasn't the plan. I don't like it.

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Clinton debating Obama in Cleveland last week.
Clinton debating Obama in Cleveland last week.

William Jefferson Clinton, AKA the "Comeback Kid," survived Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, impeachment, and open-heart surgery. He became a money-raising proposition for conservatives who hated him; a magnet for Democrats who loved his ideas and energy. During campaigns, the incorrigible candidate shook every hand and lingered in every crowd, as if he himself had been waiting hours in line to hear his own speech. Even in the darkest moments, a former staffer recalls, he always believed the sunny leader survives. "Hillary's husband taught us all that the optimistic, positive candidate is the one who wins," says a former Bill Clinton aide who supports Hillary Clinton. "He would tell us that constantly. And he was right."

But there is no joy in Hillaryville. In its place are anger (at the press, for being soft on Barack Obama), angst (at losing 11 straight contests), and apoplexy (at Obama, for daring to challenge a nomination that was supposed to have been wrapped up by now). In an aside at last week's Ohio debate, Clinton herself noted she hasn't found much happiness lately. "It's hard to find time to have fun on the campaign trail," she said, by way of explaining an anti-Obama screed she had delivered a few days earlier. Translation: This should have been over with already. This wasn't the plan. I don't like it.

And so there is frost, not sun, in the Clinton campaign. Sure, it's understandable; the once inevitable nominee is now the underdog. But it could have been that way with John McCain, too, when the erstwhile front-runner found out he was flat broke last summer and was left for dead. But McCain did not start griping about the rock-star status handed to Fred Thompson or bellyaching about the way the press was warming up to Mike Huckabee's one-liners. Instead, he got back on his bus and started all over again. He had the time to do it, and that was lucky for him. But it was also smart, even quixotic, and certainly humble. Eventually, McCain started enjoying himself again, returning to his comfort zone. And, by the way, he won.

But there doesn't seem to be any relief to be found, anywhere, for Hillary Clinton. Her comfort zones, sadly enough, have often been defined by the needs of others and by her need to keep people out—starting with the "zone of privacy" she defined during Bill Clinton's initial presidential bid. In truth, Hillary's real comfort zone has been in Congress as a hardworking senator for whom no policy detail is too small. "What she deeply believes about herself is that she understands these issues better than anyone else," says a Clinton ally. "And that everything she has gone through makes her an adult, ready to be president."

Multiple faces. But presidential choices are intensely personal. And so the Clinton campaign has decided to play a game of the blind man and the elephant: Present the multiple faces of Hillary, as if somehow each identity might attract a voter. Call it microtargeting her persona. Too bad the result of the groupthink often morphs into caricature. One moment, it's a scold ("Shame on you, Barack Obama"); the next, fuzzy praise ("honored to be here with Barack Obama"). And at the Ohio debate, Clinton seemed more whiny than presidential when she brought up a recent TV skit about journalists falling in love with Obama. "Well, can I just point out that in the last several debates I seem to get the first question," Clinton complained, wearing a false smile. "I don't mind, you know.... And if anybody saw Saturday Night Live, you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow." Was that supposed to appeal to women who are tired of being treated differently from men? There had to be some reason for it, right?

With Clinton, there is always a reason. No move—no one-liner, no line of attack—goes undebated internally. Clinton has the campaign she planned—deliberate, ready to go to war on any topic, certain that the contender with the most "experience" would win if assorted constituencies could be conquered. Obama, on the other hand, ran on one big idea. And while his notion of change remained constant, the candidate himself evolved and is still capable of surprise. Indeed, at the debate, Obama refreshingly admitted that "there's a vanity aspect and ambition aspect to politics." And when Clinton admonished him to reject—and not just denounce—the endorsement of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, what did Obama do? He said, OK, fine, I'll do it. As if he had nothing left to prove.