Clinton Operation Runs Aground Against Obama Movement in Milford

By Major Garrett

MILFORD, N.H. -- In politics there are operations and movements.

There is an operation in every campaign and the best one always wins. Unless it comes up against a movement.

Operations understand the fundamentals of a campaign and execute them with awe-inspiring precision -- everything from the candidate's message and TV ads, to voter identification and mobilization, to interest group wooing and massaging, to on-site bunting and balloons.

In a national campaign this is a massive undertaking. Getting all these fundamentals right signals important attributes about a future president: discipline, organization, vision and diligence -- they always have and always will.

Movements, however, are different and they can sometimes rise up and challenge superior political operations. Movements possess passionate supporters, one or two over-arching causes and a leader with genuine charisma who can attract people even without the well-financed voter identification efforts possessed by a rival's "operation."

Movements can be powerful and movements can win. But in my experience, most movements die because they can't sustain themselves against the overwhelming pressure applied by a superior national "operation."

I've witnessed the following movements come and go: Dean in 2004, Pat Buchanan in 1996 and Ross Perot in 1992.

They all lost. In fact, they didn't come close. They touched a chord, drew big crowds, attracted massive press coverage and even drove important issues into the debate (Dean the Iraq war, Buchanan trade, Perot the deficit). But they all lost to the superior operations because one or many things broke down, chief among them the leader's inability to broaden the audience beyond the original "movement" believers.

What we are seeing in the Democratic race for the presidency, I am now convinced, is a movement that may in fact succeed.

It is the Obama movement.

The results in Iowa expanded the known universe of what was possible in Democratic Party politics. Some of the party's most brilliant and successful leaders have competed in Iowa (save for Bill Clinton, but I'll be back to him in a minute), and not one of them came close to doing what Barack Obama achieved on Thursday with his win over Hillary Clinton. What everyone thought they knew about Iowa and the caucuses is now irrelevant. Obama changed the game and changed it forever. That is a massive, movement-like accomplishment and what's even more amazing is this: Obama said it was possible and it happened.

The distance between theory and reality is often what crushes movement because what is dreamed for rarely comes to pass. It did in Iowa and that matters not only at a political level, it matters enormously at a psychological level because movements thrive on the intangible emotional synergy of hope, aspirations and dewy-eyed dreaming -- yes, all those things wise observers of politics have long scorned because they flame out and die so frequently.

What's different about Obama and this moment is the movement has operational tendencies, which is to say it doesn't live off of its good intentions and good vibrations. This movement gets in the trenches and fights it out -- but on its terms, with its gusto and with its inventive tactical precision.

Never was that on display more clearly than at the 100 Club Dinner here Friday night. This is the New Hampshire Democratic Party's big celebration. It was held in a big dome covering a football field surrounded by a synthetic running track -- the biggest venue ever for the event.

What you need to understand about the dinner and the venue is this: it was supposed to be a Clinton room.

The Clinton brand name among Democrats is golden. The party love affair goes back to before 1992 when the Clintons first began campaigning for the White House in 1991. The legend of "The Comeback Kid" and Bill and Hill's regular and celebratory visits back to the state throughout their presidency and thereafter have made them something akin the party royalty here.

So last night was the perfect night for the Clinton operation to demonstrate that Iowa was a fluke, New Hampshire is home and things will be different on primary Tuesday.

It didn't happen. The operation tried but just like in Iowa it lost to the Obama movement.

Hillary Clinton's tables were well within camera range of the TV riser and far closer to the stage than the Obama tables (this is what you can do when your operation seeks to own the room). The Obama tables were on the far end of the domed facility, near the trailers holding the portable toilets.

When Clinton hit the stage, her well-positioned supporters rose up en masse and waved her signs carrying her new one word slogan: "Ready." It was an impressive crowd and full of energy. By standard operational measurement, it all worked really well. The crowd was bunched right before the TV riser and the "Ready" placards waved happily before the cameras and Clinton beamed at what must have felt like a warm and nerve-soothing homecoming of sorts.

But the first indication of trouble came when she warned that Democrats must not be beguiled by "false hopes" (an obvious shot at Obama) and a ripple of boos arose from the Obama tables.

Clinton's stump speech was warmly received -- of that there can be no doubt -- and she certainly appeared to have charmed if not won the room (after all, it was supposed to be hers).

Then Bill Richardson spoke and the Obama movement swung into action.

As Richardson boomed about ending the war in Iraq, team Obama pre-positioned men, women and young adults with Obama signs smack-dab in front of the stage. Hundreds upon hundreds marched silently and cheerfully (some were literally dancing barely suppressed jigs) from their distant tables and into the center of the "football" field, clogging all available space and encircling the tables of the amazed and slightly disconcerted Clinton supporters.

As soon as Richardson finished and Obama was waiting to be announced, Obama supporters hefted placards in bouncing waves and began chanting "Fired Up, Ready to Go" as the fire marshals frantically raced around to keep lanes open for people to walk around the TV riser. Rhythmic chants of "Obama" also arose in the arena as the round O-shaped Obama placards appeared to float by the hundreds in mid-air creating a mesmerizing sea of Obama signs that rocked and rolled before an empty stage.

So intense was the crowd up front, that an announcement was made that Obama wouldn't be brought out until the crowd returned to their distant seats in Siberia. The Obama legions booed, made a token move away from the stage, but largely held their ground.

When Obama took the stage the response was thunderous and jubilant, three times as loud as that for Clinton. Obama said "Thank you" as a means to quiet the crowd, one woman yelled out "Thank YOU" and the crowd burst out in a roar and cheer.

"In four days you can do what Iowa did last night," Obama said.

Obama, his voice hoarse, moved through an abbreviated stump speech and called for "one nation, one people."

"We started last night, attracting not only the tried and true Democrat, but the independent and the Republican."

On this night, the speeches mattered less than the moment. And at an event filled with party die-hards supposedly devoted body and soul to Hillary and the Clinton cause, the Obama demonstration generated more body and more soul and rolled over the Clinton operation like a tractor tire over an anthill.

And that is why I believe we are witnessing the birth of a movement that may be on the verge of defeating an operation. That would be rare enough on its own. But this particular contest is of generational importance because the Clinton operation is the most formidable modern American politics has ever seen and it would take quite a movement to knock it down.

And in Milford, on Clinton's best turf, it did.