The ‘what ifs’ begin for Hillary

And so, the what-if season begins.

It’s hard to believe that it’s over, but for Hillary Rodham Clinton, it is. She will not be president in 2009.

How did a “sure thing” a year ago turn into a what-might-have-been today?

The 2008 election season will be studied for years, but it is already clear what major mistakes by the Clinton forces helped sink the White House hopes of one of the smartest, shrewdest women of our time.

The basic problem is that long ago Hillary Clinton positioned herself as an establishment candidate. She went to all the traditional moneybags and locked in a stupendous amount of money and support. But she could not have foreseen that the voters would be desperate for change and for something new.

She probably never even thought when she started her campaign that millions would conclude that after 20 years of having a Bush or a Clinton in the White House, the prospect of four or eight years more of another Clinton was just too much. Americans liked the TV show but tire of dynasties in general.

When she cast her vote for supporting President Bush’s position in Iraq, she did not foresee that after five years and more than 4,000 American lives and thousands more Iraqi lives, the word “quagmire” would be operative.

She has admitted that she came to her quest with “baggage.” But she never understood that a lot of voters did not think it their responsibility to help her carry that baggage. The doubts about her credibility, the soap opera of her marriage and the constant reinvention of her appearance, her role and her goals made many who otherwise wanted to support her a little queasy.

There was the moment when it was revealed that she had loaned her campaign $5 million. And now we learn she has loaned it another $6.5 million. If she couldn’t manage the millions of dollars people gave her to run for president, how well could we expect her to manage the billions we would entrust her with to run the country?

There were all those staff turnovers and constant internecine bickering. That speaks of a candidate who was not a good manager. She rewarded the loyal and punished the disloyal, even if their ideas were good. With the Clintons, if you aren’t 100 percent for them, you’re against them.

She demanded everybody play by the rules. But when Florida and Michigan refused, she wanted them to get a pass.

Many got tired of the pandering. The silly gas-tax holiday, all sizzle and no steak, was the final straw. In the Midwest, she was vehemently against free trade agreements. In other states that benefit from free trade, much less so. She promised so much with so few details, on health care, on restoring the U.S. position in the world, on blowing up Iran, it was hard not to be cynical.

Her message changed from day to day. One minute she was solemnly announcing how honored she was to be running against Barack Obama; the next, she was ridiculing him up one side and down the other. She reduced his stature, chiseled away at his charisma and made a Democratic victory in November harder although she could also claim she toughened him up for what is ahead.

Yes, there is nostalgia for what might have been — the first female president in the figure of a woman who cares about the country’s children and its future, an experienced political warrior who would have been fun, albeit sometimes exasperating, to watch.

As the contest between Obama and John McCain gets intense, many will miss her. But she was not ready, and the country was not ready. It is to be hoped that she will go back to Congress a wiser woman who will be of value to the next president and thus help the country as a lion in the Senate. From what we have seen of her toughness and commitment, that is exactly what will happen.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)