The landslide defeat of former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe in the Democratic primary for governor of Virginia was a debacle. But his loss to state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds offers important lessons about campaigns in general and about the status of the Clinton brand in particular.
First, campaigns. The lessons do not include the simplistic half-truth, happily proclaimed by reformers and the press, that McAuliffe's defeat proves that the influence of money in elections is on the wane. (It's not.) McAuliffe's cash advantage would have mattered more if he had had something to say that connected with voters. But McAuliffe, who started out ahead in the three-man field, was rich in money and poor in message.
His persistent call for wind power may have tested well in a poll, but it seemed beside the point in the gale force winds of the current economic environment. Likewise, his drumbeat of advertising and speeches proclaiming that he had created jobs for thirty—sometimes he said forty—years also fell flat. Given his age, 52, forty years was quite a stretch, forcing him to explain at one point that as a 14-year-old he had started a driveway maintenance business in his hometown of Syracuse. As it turned out, most of the jobs he "created" weren't in Virginia, where McAuliffe has lived for the past 17 years. In any event, the electorate viewed economic recovery as primarily a national responsibility, the task of the Obama Administration—not of their governor.
McAuliffe was a ubiquitous presence on television, appearing in nearly every one of his ads. Voters understandably concluded that his most memorable message was himself. As one observer remarked, his appeal seemed to come down to: "Why don't you like me as much as I like myself?" His relentless barrage of advertising only reinforced the criticism that McAuliffe was trying to buy the election.
His omnipresence reflected a deeper problem: Despite his years living in the state, McAuliffe failed to convey a sense that he was rooted in Virginia and identified with its values. His friend Hillary Clinton had faced a similar challenge in her 2000 Senate race in New York; she responded by all but moving to its upstate region and making sure that voters constantly saw her on television not just talking at them but listening to them.
McAuliffe lost despite the aid of some of the best consultants in the political business, including Obama's pollster and one of Washington's leading ad makers. They just missed the mark. (As a former political consultant, I know exactly what that feels like.)
Someone else who missed the mark was Bill Clinton, who was once presumed to be McAuliffe's ace in the hole. The former president was an indefatigable campaigner for his longtime friend and fundraiser. Clinton was featured at five rallies, and he recorded radio ads and robo-calls that reached homes across the state. He was virtually McAuliffe's running mate.
Most telling was the former president's failure in his most important assignment: delivering the black vote. McAuliffe carried the one congressional district in the state that has a heavily African-American population. But even there he barely defeated Deeds—by a paper-thin margin of 39 percent to 36 percent. The results suggest that last year's contest for the presidential nomination, especially Clinton's attacks on Obama during the South Carolina primary, have permanently undermined his standing with African-Americans.
Bill Clinton can still raise big money and big crowds—and nothing will keep him off the campaign trail. But he now looks like a fading influence in American—and even Democratic—politics. The one other candidate he campaigned for, a former Clinton aide running for a seat in Virginia's state Assembly, finished third in his primary.
Despite such results, we are not entering a post-Clinton era—just a post-Bill era. Hillary Clinton is getting high marks for her leadership at the State Department. Traveling the world, she's become a powerful force in shaping a new American diplomacy. At home, she's moved to extend same-sex domestic partner benefits to Foreign Service personnel, even before the Obama administration acts on a government-wide basis. It's the right thing to do, but it's also smart politically. It plays to a Democratic constituency that could prove crucial in 2016.
Hillary will be 69-years-old then—probably a young 69. That campaign may be a long way off, but there's no one on the horizon with her visibility or breadth of appeal. What's more, it may be hard for anyone else to emerge from Barack Obama's considerable shadow. She's positioning herself to run by doing her job as Obama's partner, not his rival. She may lean forward on an issue like gay rights, but within the ambit of her present authority. She's amassing unquestionable national security credentials and by 2016 will be an even more formidable candidate than she was in 2008.
Does she think about this? Probably. After all, it's only natural. She's handled herself with consummate skill. The irony is that, for now, the campaign circuit is left to her husband, whose political capital has fallen, while she stays above the fray, with her political capital rising.
So in the ongoing Tale of Two Clintons, it's the worst of times and the best of times. He'll still be out there on the hustings, searching for affirmation. If Hillary Clinton does run again, she'll have to decide how he can contribute. It could be a tough challenge to rein him in where he hurts, and let him loose only where he is likely to help. After Virginia and last year's primaries, Bill Clinton is no longer the Democrats' campaigner-in-chief. But this tale is not over. The conclusion may yet see Hillary Clinton as commander-in-chief.