Fineman: Hillary's Achilles' Heel

Heading into yet another TV debate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton faces a potent enemy—not onstage, but in her own mind. She has a lifelong obsession with seeking out, and trying to control, unruly events and people. She often fails, and harms herself trying. If she doesn't ease up, she risks losing the race. Brainy women don't frighten voters; control freaks do.

Hillary hates surprises yet chooses to live in the most chaotic situations imaginable—from her eyes-wide-shut marriage to an undomesticated Arkansan, to a race for president in today's impossible-to-tame Wild West of bile-filled blogs and You Tube videos.

I've seen this disaster flick before. In her husband's 1992 campaign, she turned a family real-estate deal into a horror show by refusing to show documents about the transaction to The New York Times. She played the reporter along; then she stiffed him. The maneuver was too clever by half. "Whitewater" dogged the Clintons for years.

The latest example of the Control Freak Syndrome arose in Newton, Iowa, where her campaign planted in the audience at least one (and maybe several) questions to be asked of her. What on earth did she have to fear? By now she has answered thousands of questions and is smarter and better-briefed than any candidate in the field.

Why plant an innocuous question about global warming? The answer: because she could.

A campaign is an extension of the candidate, reflecting his or her personality. Bill Clinton's in 1992 was a brilliant combination of soap opera and floating crap game. George W. Bush's cold-blooded machine had no compunction about waterboarding Sen. John McCain in 2000 or swift-boating Sen. John Kerry four years later. Hillary's campaign too is personality writ large: defensive, and seeking dominion over everything that moves.

Confidence and insecurity run a never-ending race in Hillary's mind. Her biographers, including Sally Bedell Smith and Carl Bernstein, ascribe her character to a stern, judgmental father who was tough on her and even tougher on her sainted mother.

The longing for order has its virtues. At Wellesley she was the student leader who counseled her classmates to turn disruptive anger into teachable moments and electoral politics. In her family life she was passionate about providing a safe harbor for her daughter Chelsea, whose privacy was respected and who was rarely used as a political prop.

Within the orderly cocoon of "Hillary World," friends stay friends for life, and she elicits the kind of walk-through-walls loyalty that other politicians cannot match.

She demands, and actually studies, carefully constructed memos on every topic. For important speeches she writes her words out long-hand, and places backup material in labeled and tabbed folders. She knows the names and college affiliations and family backgrounds of every thoroughly vetted summer intern in her office.

That's the good news. But there is a major downside.

She tries, against all logic and against her own best interest, to anticipate and answer every substantive and political objection to everything she says. This can lead to locutions so tortured and timid as to seem ludicrous or, worse, evasive or dishonest. Sometimes, covering all the bases ends up looking like merely covering up.

A classic example was her now-infamous answer to Tim Russert's question at the MSNBC debate in Philadelphia. His question was simple: should illegals be issued driver's licenses? Since she evidently wasn't prepared thoroughly—Oh God, a surprise!—she petulantly labeled it a "gotcha" question. Then she gave a pretzellike, contradictory response. Later, the campaign issued its own tortured statements, but spent most of its time and energy blaming the big, bad (that is, uncontrollable) moderator.

Hillary is surrounded by the savviest, most experienced Democratic handlers in the business. And yet their dominant collective emotion sometimes seems to be a kind of joyless, anticipatory fear.

Having served at Bill Clinton's side for so many years, Hillary's team may know almost too much about the risks and brutalities of political life. As a result, they may be amplifying, rather than allaying, her self-destructive desire to master all that she surveys.

Her close friends say that there is a warm, charming and at-ease Hillary Clinton. I'm not a friend but even I have seen it, especially when she is around kids. Folks see it when there are no cameras around. Voters see it when she speaks to small groups in living rooms, where she is at ease, feeling that she knows the room and therefore feels safe.

She needs to make the whole country that living room.

If she doesn't stop being afraid to lose—or even to make a mistake—she isn't going to win.