Were The Clintons Just Overrated?

I've been thinking about this as I've watched this campaign unfold. There's this standard narrative which holds that Bill Clinton is the greatest politician in a generation, and that the Clinton machine is a juggernaut, the likes of which  have not been seen in the Democratic party in decades. And yet, in the midst of the War years, Hillary Clinton is loosing to a first term African-American senator with a Muslim name and a black nationalist pastor. On a paper, can you think of a plausibly worse mixture for a candidate? The daily feed of information and controversies blinds us to this essential narrative--the Clintons are getting their clocks cleaned by a rookie who's damn near straight out the state legislature.

How can this be? I think in large measure, the Clintons are basically running a campaign which depends heavily on smoke and mirrors, spin and narrative, and various other optical illusion. Whenever the discussion turns to Clinton, I keep hearing vague political-speak like "inevitability," "momentum," or "change the narrative." Remember at the start of the year when her campaign switched their slogan damn near every week? Meanwhile Obama has run a fact-based campaign that focuses on delegates. Clintonistas can crow all day that Obama has yet to win a big state, but that doesn't make it true. No narrative can alter the basics of delegate math.

I've seen this strategy before. When I was in school in Baltimore, there was always a kid who excelled at running his mouth, at "spinning" the other students, at "controlling the narrative" and establishing himself as a world-class bad-ass. And then he'd mouth off to the wrong dude, who'd subsequently beat the crap out of him after school. That's the Clinton campaign--all talk, all spin, (remember "I will be the nominee"?). But when it's time to throw blows, and the bumrush arrives, all we get is crying, whining, and more talk.

The Clinton folks have basically been running a trash-talk campaign--I mean what else is cable news but trash-talk? The problem is, like the mouthy kid in class with no real knuckle-game, they've overestimated the power of words. This is why these guys work the refs and name-check Saturday Night Live, when they should be working the caucuses, or huddling in the lab doing the math. I'd love to see some evidence that MSNBC actually converted people from Clinton to Obama's camp.

Perhaps worst of all, the Clintons aren't even good at trash-talking. Obama basically isn't afraid of these guys, and for all his noble talk, he's essentially a brawler with a preference for body-blows. Frank Rich had it right in his killer piece a month back:

Clinton fans don’t see their standard-bearer’s troubles this way. In their view, their highly substantive candidate was unfairly undone by a lightweight showboat who got a free ride from an often misogynist press and from naïve young people who lap up messianic language as if it were Jim Jones’s Kool-Aid. Or as Mrs. Clinton frames it, Senator Obama is all about empty words while she is all about action and hard work.

But it’s the Clinton strategists, not the Obama voters, who drank the Kool-Aid. The Obama campaign is not a vaporous cult; it’s a lean and mean political machine that gets the job done. The Clinton camp has been the slacker in this race, more words than action, and its candidate’s message, for all its purported high-mindedness, was and is self-immolating.

All of that leaves me with a question. Were these guys just way way overrated? Would Bill Clinton have lost in 1992 if not for Ross Perot? Cable news likes to portray the Democratic race as a clash of the titans, a'la Frazier v. Ali. But this is more like Douglass v. Tyson, except I'm wondering whether the Clintons ever had the killer uppercut everyone claims. It's very hard to square thier vaunted political machine with bad politicking like this and this. Maybe it's just that the Dems lost so much for so long, that when the Clintons actually won, they became gods. I don't know. I'm waiting for the books to be written.