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Recount II: Return to the Swamp

It is usually a mistake to read too deeply into the character of a presidential candidate on the basis of some tactical maneuver or grubby compromise. Anybody who was a saint wouldn't be in the position of running for the White House. And yet, Hillary Clinton's speech last week in Florida was so audacious, so divorced from reality, that it begs characterological questions.

In the speech, Clinton--summoning as much passion and moral fervor as she has mustered at any point in the campaign--demanded that the Florida and Michigan delegations be seated at the Democratic National Convention. She compared her cause to abolition and women's suffrage. And--perhaps even more outrageous to those of us who have lived through the last eight years but weren't around for Seneca Falls--she said the Democratic Party and Barack Obama were reenacting the Republican effort to prevent the Florida recount in 2000.

It is a repellent comparison. "I remember very well back in 2000," she said. "There were those who argued that people's votes should be discounted over technicalities." We remember back in 2007, when Hillary Clinton was one of the people arguing that Florida's and Michigan's votes should be discounted. Her ostensible discovery of the absolute moral principle that every state delegation must be seated in full, whether or not its primary was contested, is purely instrumental and highly dubious.

The fight over the scheduling of the primaries is not one that ought to seize anybody's moral imagination. The current primary system is fairly silly, with Iowa and New Hampshire clinging to outsized roles without any particular justification save precedent. Florida and Michigan, however, did not move their primaries forward in the calendar to advance a principle or improve a flawed system. They did so to increase their own political leverage. They were willing to risk losing some or even all of their seated delegates because they craved the p.r. value that accompanies the earliest primary contests--and they pursued this attention with the full knowledge that it might ultimately cost them.

But, if this whole contretemps can be traced back to an irrational system for nominating candidates and the recklessness of two states, Clinton won't acknowledge it. Last week, she declared that "not counting Florida and Michigan is changing a central governing rule of this country--that whenever we can understand the clear intent of the voters, their votes should be counted." This is a deliberately misleading conflation of the two meanings of the word "count. " The ballots of the Florida primary were, in fact, counted. The prize that both sides understood to be at stake--bragging rights about a big-state victory--was awarded to the winner, Hillary Clinton. That the votes would not produce delegates was something she and her supporters understood well in advance.

Nevertheless, her comparison to the 2000 election does resonate in one crucial respect. In 2000, George W. Bush's campaign and its allies invented and discarded principles whenever it suited them. They called hand counts of ballots inherently unreliable. They insisted on following the letter of the law except in cases, like military ballots, where it benefited them. This proved to be a foreboding premonition of how Bush would use power as president.

Likewise, Clinton's behavior in this case offers a window into her temperament. She appears to have retreated into a cocoon of self-righteousness and unreality. Her management of this issue--and, in some ways, the whole campaign--echoes her management of health care reform back in her husband's first term.

In that debacle, Hillary Clinton's efforts foundered thanks to a host of now-familiar factors. There was her reliance on incompetent advisers. In 1993, her chief guide was Ira Magaziner, who managed to alienate all those around him. As Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala later told author Sally Bedell Smith, "[Magaziner] assumed you were a fool if you asked a question. Bill and Hillary were fascinated by him. They thought he was a genius." In today's Hillaryland, Magaziner has, of course, been superseded by Mark Penn.

Above all, Clinton displayed an inability to grasp the process, confusing dissent with disloyalty, a mindset that ultimately put her out of touch with political reality. J. Bradford DeLong, then a Treasury Department economist, later recalled:

So when senior members of the economic team said that key senators like Daniel Patrick Moynihan would have this-and-that objection, she told them they were disloyal. When junior members of the economic team told her that the Congressional Budget Office would say such-and-such, she told them (wrongly) that her conversations with CBO head Robert Reischauer had already fixed that. When long-time senior Hill staffers told her that she was making a dreadful mistake by fighting with rather than reaching out to John Breaux and Jim Cooper, she told them that they did not understand the wave of popular political support the bill would generate.

When Clinton came to the Senate, she made every effort to show that she had learned from her mistakes. But, in her capacity as candidate, she is an executive again, and it's clear that little has changed. The one positive quality that even her critics concede she has demonstrated is that she's a "fighter." There was a candidate like that during the 2000 Florida recount, too--a fighter who considered victory his birthright and who, unlike his opponent, would not let ethical reservations hold him back. That was George W. Bush.