Hillary Wept

I am almost entirely uninterested in the “did Hillary Clinton plan to cry?”* argument. However, Paul Waldman makes a pretty interesting, if not firmly convincing, case that she did.

As the weekend turned to Monday, the Clinton campaign was facing an existential crisis. Multiple polls showed Obama up by double digits, and it was obvious that if he won in New Hampshire after winning Iowa, he would be virtually unstoppable. Faced with this prospect, Clinton had two choices. She could essentially do nothing — just ride it out, try to have good events, do well enough during the debate, and hope for some unexpected change of heart among the voters. This was a recipe for defeat.

The other option was to do something. There is nothing harder in politics than creating a happening that captivates the press and ultimately moves votes. But the idea that faced with their demise, the Clinton campaign wouldn’t try something, anything to turn things around seems highly unlikely.

3. If they were going to try something, it had to be something that would stir the press to focus on it, and affect how significant numbers of voters looked at her, or at Obama. Since women voters were both their biggest problem and their biggest area of opportunity, the logical place to go would be for an appeal to them. And how could she appeal to them? It wouldn’t be enough to just make a new argument – she had to create an event that would pull women toward her. She had long ago established that she was tough, so doing something to appear strong wouldn’t make a difference. But if she countered the image she had labored so hard to create, by actually reinforcing some stereotypes from which women suffer, it was a good bet that it would dominate the last news cycle of the race, and that misogynistic creeps like Chris Matthews and Rush Limbaugh would be all over her for it.

… 4. Throughout the Clinton presidency and her Senate campaigns, it was always the case that whenever Hillary Clinton got attacked, her approval numbers rose. Whether it was Ken Starr, Rick Lazio, or the legions of Clinton-haters, she has always thrived – particularly with women – whenever under assault, particularly by men who look like bullies. She and her people understand this very well.

5. Now let’s look at what actually happened on Monday. As she begins to answer, her voice cracks, and it sounds as though she’s fighting back tears. Now let’s remember that Hillary Clinton is a professional. She’s been through lots of campaigns, and lots of other pressure-packed situations. I am most definitely not saying that it would have been impossible for her to get choked up. What I am saying is that it is almost impossible to believe that if she wanted to, she would not have been able to compose herself.

No, I’m not thoroughly convinced, and no, I don’t think it matters one way or the other. But it’s a sharp bit of political psychologizing. The thing about politics — the thing which is continually striking to me, no matter how many times I see it play out — is that for all the white papers and policy proposals, the conference tables surrounded by advisers and the beleaguered press aides drumming up coverage, the soaring speeches and the slick soundbites, the myriad attempts to engineer the electorate and formulate voting-booth wins, the unavoidable fact of politics is that it is a human enterprise, and thus freighted with the mysteries of human psychology and behavior. So much in politics aspires to the cool and the rational, yet so much ends up taking the form of entertainment: circus, tragedy, epic, melodrama. In the end, much of our national story hinges on the primal, the animal — tears, screams, skin color, beads of sweat and stuttered statements.

*As Brian Beutler notes, she didn’t actually cry, but that hardly matters at this point.