• Marc Johnson

Playing Not to Lose…

Hillary Clinton is campaigning as if she were running out the clock, trying not to lose rather than playing to win.

North Carolina’s Dean Smith


The late, great North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith was one of the great innovators in basketball. Smith, who died earlier this year and will long be remembered – especially by Duke fans – as a nice guy who rarely finished anywhere other than in first place.

Smith pioneered the use of analytics to assess the performance of his teams. He once said he would have been happy being a high school math teacher. His players adored him, even when he pushed them mercilessly during practices because he also praised and encouraged them lavishly during a game when everyone was watching.

Fellow coaches revered him and adopted his lessons. Every player on the bench got to his feet, for example, when a teammate left the game and Smith’s players knew they were expected to help a teammate to his feet after that teammate took a charge.

The Coach – or Candidate – as Innovator…

Coach Smith was also a very political man in a low-key, but effective way. He said late in his life that North Carolina would never have accepted him had they known how liberal he was. I doubt Hillary Clinton is much of a basketball fan, but the great Coach Smith could probably tell her a thing or two about the danger of going too soon into the political equivalent of the four-corner offense that Smith pioneered.

Carolina ran the Smith 4-corner as a tribute to the great coach during a game last season


The four corner offense was Dean Smith’s brilliant strategy to hold on to a lead by killing the clock – holding the ball, passing, cutting, passing, cutting, passing and never looking to score. It was offense by playing it safe and often it worked just as planned. In the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in 1982, Smith’s team held the ball and a one point lead for the last eight minutes of the game before defeating Virginia. The final score was 47-45 and that game helped usher in the college basketball shot clock that essentially made Smith’s hold-the-ball offense obsolete.

Clinton’s flat, joyless, dull campaign, insulated from any meaningful contact with the press and featuring only tightly controlled interaction with voters is a strategy to run down the clock. Designed to be risk free, it is really the type of political effort that induces unforced errors.

Hillary: The Inevitable…Again

Clinton is presumed, apparently by her handlers and by herself, to be so far ahead of her Democratic challengers that she can coast to victory and then glide into the general election. To mix the sports metaphors, she could be using the primary as a political spring training to get in shape for the long regular season, but rather than taking extra batting practice she’s jogging out on the warning track. Clinton partisans proclaim how different things are this time than when she employed essentially the same approach and lost in 2008. But there is little evidence that Clinton’s “new” political approach is anything new, at all.

Hillary Clinton walks through the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images


Clinton has lightened up a bit lately on the vice-like control that has been a hallmark of her approach to politics, but she still gives the impression she is trying to prevent a mistake rather than win an election.

Politico’s Rachael Bade reported recently that Clinton went through all the motions at a cattle call Democratic event in northeastern Iowa, but rather than work the crowd and shake every hand in sight she briefly mingled and “then she disappeared behind a makeshift black curtain walling off a corner of the ballroom. Fans pushed up against the veil, trying to get a peak of the 2016 Democratic front-runner. But her security detail held them back, allowing only a handful to enter and see the hidden candidate before she left, leaving a swarm of disappointed voters who didn’t get a handshake.”

Her husband would still be in the room, waving off aides trying to get him moving, while he schmoozed and charmed voters. Not Hillary’s style.

The Clinton campaign launched a $2 million television ad buy recently in Iowa and New Hampshire that featured two well-produced, but strangely cold-blooded ads that were all about how Hillary’s mother had been such an influence in her life. I don’t doubt the genuine feeling, even passion, behind the message, but couldn’t help thinking as I watched the spots that Clinton can’t even talk about her mother without a tightly scripted pitch.

Still from Clinton TV spot


The commercials were designed to illustrate the human side of the candidate, to “re-introduce” the one person in the race – maybe Trump excepted – who we already know really, really well.

The latest commercials focus on the perseverance and courage of Dorothy Rodham and feature Clinton saying, “this is why I do this…” You can almost see the candidate and the ad maker huddling over a script parsing every word trying to gin up maximum emotion. A less controlling campaign and a more natural politician might have just let the camera roll, while the candidate talked from the heart about her mom, but that is clearly not Hillary’s style. She is so controlled she has become what Trump never will be – bland.

When Clinton enjoyed a big lead over Barack Obama back in 2007 she was content, way beyond the point she should have been, to play it safe and sit on that lead. She went into the four corners and lost any political momentum and then the Democratic nomination. She seems to have learned little from what must have been an extremely painful experience and failing to learn lessons in politics is often deadly.

Hitting the Delete Button…

The Clinton email saga has been the one consistent message swirling around her candidacy for months now and we may just be seeing the beginning. Clinton’s approach to campaigning – slow, measured, risk averse and secretive – is mirrored in her mostly ineffective response to the news that she used only a personal email set-up during her years as secretary of state.

So far she has offered no believable explanation as to why she went to all the trouble to work around the government’s own email system other than to say it’s no big deal and amounts to a would be scandal dreamed up by nasty partisans determined to attack her. That has essentially been Clinton’s response to every criticism dating back to the Rose Law firm and Whitewater.

One suspects she hasn’t offered a believable rationale for the email situation because there is no believable rationale. She went off the government system, installed her own private server managed by her own private contractor because she didn’t want to leave an electronic record of her correspondence that might one day be fodder for attack. It has now become clear that several key Clinton staff members used the same approach and now with the FBI involved there will be certainly more questions about whether information of a sensitive national security nature was compromised.

It all begs the question – why? And that question demands a follow-up: why stall and dither and hedge on dealing with the controversy? If there is nothing to hide, why hide?

The conventional political wisdom remains, even as poll numbers tighten and her favorable numbers tank – voters increasingly think she is about as trustworthy as Trump – that Clinton can’t possible lose the Democratic nomination. Under this theory her fundraising, her potentially historic status as the first woman president and her last name will ultimately carry the day.

The New York Time’s in-house conservative columnist Ross Douthat made his own fearless prediction this way: “Many things are possible. But to this soothsayer, it feels like a good time to double down on that thesis instead, and make my prediction as firm and wiggle-free as possible: Hillary’s going to win the nomination, and it isn’t going to be particularly close.”

Maybe. But it has also become clear that Clinton is no where near the natural political animal her husband remains and, in fact, she may be one of the worst candidates in terms of basic political skills of any “sure” winner in recent American political history.

Some other observers contend it is already just too late to depose Clinton as the Democratic nominee, but just see what happens if the email issue, or some yet unnamed scandal, reveals more and more vulnerabilities. And what happens if Clinton stumbles badly in a face-to-face encounter with Bernie Sanders or, heaven forbid, during an interview with a tough reporter.

Playing to Win…

When Dean Smith finally brought his four corner offense to near perfection, the NCAA changed the rules in a way that destroyed his strategy. Holding the ball would no longer work, so the great coach did the only sensible thing – he adapted. The great coach designed new strategies based on a new and different game and Smith’s Tarheels kept right on winning.

Politics isn’t basketball, of course, but politics, like the hoops game, is always about adapting, moving and being willing to call an unusual play that catches an opponent flat-footed. Dean Smith mastered the four corner offense and then when he needed to do something different he did. As one of his players said when reflecting on his methods, “He never coached not to lose. He coached to win.”

The Democratic frontrunner is playing not to lose and she may find that is a sure fire way not to win.

 

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson