Clinton's Spin Machine: Spun Dry

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Scott Olson / Getty

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.

Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton for the ninth and tenth straight time last night, with blowouts in Wisconsin and Hawaii. Needless to say, this means nothing. As Clinton strategist Mark Penn explained yesterday, Wisconsin has a lot of independent voters, so it doesn't really matter. And Hawaii is practically Obama's home state, so it obviously doesn't matter. Anyway, as Penn said recently, "winning Democratic primaries is not a qualification or a sign of who can win the general election." It's apparently not even a sign of who can win the Democratic nomination — at least not when the victories are Obama's.

The Clinton spin machine has been consistent about this. Nebraska, Idaho and Utah didn't matter because they were deep-red states. South Carolina, Louisiana and Georgia didn't matter because they had large percentages of black voters. Maine and Washington didn't matter because caucuses aren't truly representative. Maryland and Virginia didn't matter because Obama was expected to win there. For a moment, it looked like Missouri might matter when the networks called it for Hillary — her campaign quickly bragged about winning a "closely contested toss-up state" — but the networks were wrong. On the other hand, it looked like Nevada wasn't going to matter at all because there were polling stations in casinos, but it ended up huge because Hillary won.

It turns out that the only state Obama won that could have mattered was Illinois, his real home state; unfortunately, home-state victories don't really count, except when they take place in New York. "Could we possibly have a nominee who hasn't won any of the significant states outside of Illinois?" Penn recently asked.

Well yes, in fact, it's starting to look like we could. So maybe all these Obama victories mean something after all. Maybe they mean that voters are sick of the perpetual Clinton spin machine. At the very least, they've made it clear that the machine is broken, if not dead.

Spin is about framing a coherent narrative, and Team Hillary's narrative borders on self-parody. When Hillary was getting lots of endorsements, it showed that she was the people's choice. Now that Obama's getting lots of endorsements, it shows that he's the "establishment candidate." When Hillary was doing better than Obama in head-to-head matchups against Republicans, it showed that she was more electable. Now that Obama's doing better, it shows that he hasn't been vetted. Obama was naive for saying he'd meet with foreign dictators; he was also deceitful for claiming that Hillary would refuse to meet with foreign dictators.

Let's face it: All campaigns spin. They all try to put favorable glosses on tough situations. Back when Hillary was dominating the polls and Penn was churning out inevitability memos declaring that the race had stabilized (3/27/07) except that Hillary was widening her lead (5/7/07) and strengthening her lead (6/18/07) and better positioned than ever (7/9/07), Obama had to argue that he still had a chance — otherwise, why would anyone have supported him? Now that John McCain is the presumptive G.O.P. nominee, Mike Huckabee has been saying he believes in miracles. What else is he going to say?

But at least Huckabee isn't trying to claim that his race is actually neck-and-neck, or that he wasn't really trying to win states where he campaigned and lost, or that one failed prediction after another just proves what he's been saying all along. Spin works best when it's intermittent and plausible; the Clinton camp's has been constant and ludicrous. Is it really wise to dismiss the vast majority of the United States as insignificant? Does anyone believe that the misguided attack on Obama's kindergarten ambitions was "a joke"? Explain to us again why Michigan's delegates should be seated even though Democrats agreed not to campaign there and Obama wasn't even on the ballot? Why are we supposed to ignore Wisconsin when it's got exactly the demographics that Penn has assured us are part of Hillary's "enduring coalition," back when Hillary had a massive lead in the state and just about every other state?

It's strange, because when I covered Hillary's first Senate race in 2000, I felt like she was a pretty bad candidate with some very smart advisors who helped carry her to victory by sticking to a relentlessly disciplined — though frustratingly banal — message. Now she's a much better candidate; she has eight years in the Senate on her resume, she actually lives in the jurisdiction where she's running for office, and she's much less stilted on the stump. And while she's still got the same advisers, they can't seem to keep their story straight anymore.

It's understandable that the Clintonites operate in permanent spin mode; they weathered a constant barrage of attacks in the 1990s, and they came to see politics as a perpetual war room where you say whatever's necessary to win the day. It's hard to know whether their self-justifying and self-contradictory nonsense bothers actual voters, or just the reporters who have it force-fed to them. Strategy and marketing can be overrated in the world of retail; it might just be that a majority of Democratic voters, faced with a choice between two strong candidates with similar policies, prefer the Obama product.

But the Orwellian spin and the silly gotchas certainly could reinforce Obama's message that Clinton is mired in the small-minded, zero-sum, it's-all-a-game Washington politics of the past. There was that classic debate moment when Hillary said her worst quality was her impatience to change the world, and then criticized Obama for admitting he was disorganized. The next day, Obama said that if he had known that was how the game was supposed to be played, he would have said his worst quality was his overeagerness to help old ladies cross the street. Who do you think won that argument?

This morning, after his resounding victories in Wisconsin and Hawaii, Hillary finally acknowledged the obvious about Obama: "He's had a good couple of weeks, and he's run a good race." It wasn't an admission of defeat; it was an admission of reality. It added a bit of credibility to her larger where's-the-beef argument, which is that Obama isn't ready to be President, and voters have been falling for his fancy speeches without examining his substance. That's spin, too, but it's reasonable spin that tells a debatable but plausible story. We'll see if voters buy it in Texas and Ohio.

And if they don't, we'll find out whether Texas and ohio don't matter either.