As Bush's Republican coalition begins to fray, the Democrats can look forward to the 2008 presidential election with confidence. Conventional wisdom says Hillary Clinton is too liberal to take the White House. Conventional wisdom is wrongby Carl M Cannon / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
In 1978, while covering California politics, I found myself on election night at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, which was serving as a kind of election central. Waiting for the returns to come in, I was sitting in the lobby having a drink with my father Lou—who, then as now, was the leading expert on Ronald Reagan. As if on cue, the former actor and ex-California governor came striding into the hotel. Even then Reagan looked the part: wide-shouldered, flanked by a security detail, sporting his trademark blue serge suit, every black hair in place. The only thing missing, I thought, was the marine corps band.
No one back east took Reagan seriously. Despite a devoted following among what were then known as Goldwater Republicans, the Washington cognoscenti casually dismissed Reagan as too conservative, too old, a B-movie actor who once played second fiddle to a chimpanzee. “Who does he think he is?” I asked my dad. “The president of the United States?”
“No,” came the reply. “He thinks he’s the next president of the United States.” After a pause, he added, “And he might be.”
I remember that vignette every time a political sage says authoritatively that Hillary Rodham Clinton will “never” be president.
If you “know” Clinton can’t be president, you’re a member of the Washington in-crowd. If you don’t, you’re a boob from the sticks. You know the rap: she’s too liberal, too polarising; women don’t think much of her marriage—or her, for staying in it; men feel threatened by her feminism. Too much baggage. Too… Clinton.
And these are Democrats talking. Bizarrely, the party’s insiders are going out of their way to tear down the credentials and prospects of one of their rare superstars. With some exceptions, the journalistic pack seems nearly as negative about Hillary Clinton’s chances.
Conservatives (and liberals) would consider it heresy to compare Ronald Reagan and Hillary Clinton. And Reagan is certainly a hard act to follow. He combined Main Street sensibilities and a soothing Middle America persona with an uplifting vision of America’s place in the world that earned him a decisive victory in 1980—and almost 60 per cent of the vote when he ran for re-election four years later. Hillary Clinton is a more polarising figure in more polarised times. Yet Clinton, like Reagan, can lay claim to the passions of die-hard grassroots members of her party. And like Reagan, the charisma gap between her and any would-be challengers is enormous.
Of course, the question is not whether she can win the primary. Most Democrats concede it is probably hers for the taking. “I don’t know how you beat her for the Democratic nomination,” former senator Bob Kerrey told New York magazine. “She’s a rock star.” But that, as the cognoscenti see it, is the problem. She can’t lose the primary, and she can’t win the general election. And s o they look vainly for an alternative—Mark Warner? Joe Biden? Evan Bayh? But it’s time for Democrats to snap out of it and take a fresh look at the hand they’ve been dealt. Hillary Rodham Clinton can win the general election no matter who the Republicans throw at her.?
What do the polls say?
The available data do not suggest she is unelectable—they suggest just the opposite. A Gallup poll taken in May showed Clinton with a favourable rate of 55 per cent. True, her unfavourable number is 39 per cent, which is high enough for concern—but one that is nearly identical to Bush’s on the eve of his re-election. Then there was this eye-opening question: “if Hillary Clinton were to run for president in 2008, how likely would you be to vote for her—very, somewhat, not very or not at all likely?” The results were interesting. 29 per cent said very likely, 24 per cent said somewhat likely, 7 per cent not very likely and 39 not at all likely. At the risk of labouring the point, 29 plus 24 per cent adds up to a majority. I can hear my pals answering this as they read these numbers: “Yes, but that’s before the conservative attack machine gets at her…”
Well, no, it isn’t. They’ve been going at her with verbal tyre irons, machetes and sawn-off shotguns for 12 years now. Clinton’s negatives are already figured into her ratings. What could she be accused of that she hasn’t already confronted since she entered the public eye 14 years ago? Clinton today is in a position similar to Bush’s at the beginning of 2004. Democrats hoped that more information about the president’s youth would knock him down. But voters had already taken the president’s past into account in 2000. More information just wasn’t going to make a dent.
Let’s also look deeper into that Gallup survey because the closer you look at it, the more formidable Clinton seems. Thirty per cent of the poll’s respondents consider Hillary a “moderate,” while 9 per cent described her a “conservative.” Now, I’m not sure which newspapers that 9 per cent have been reading, but the fact that nearly 40 per cent of the electorate does not identify her as liberal mitigates the perception that she’s considered too far to the left to be a viable national candidate.
Such perceptions aren’t set in stone, however, and senators’ voting records can come back to haunt them in the heat of a campaign as John Kerry learned in 2004. Thus, Clinton’s Senate voting record, and where it puts her on the ideological scale, is worth additional scrutiny.
The most comprehensive annual analysis of voting records is undertaken by my magazine, National Journal, which for 2004 used 24 votes on economic issues, 19 votes on social issues, and 17 foreign policy-related roll calls to rate all 100 senators. Its resulting ranking of Kerry as the Senate’s most liberal member (at least during 2003) was a gift for the Bush campaign. But Clinton is harder to pigeon-hole. For 2004, Clinton’s composite liberal score was 71 per cent—putting her roughly in the middle of the Democratic caucus. While adhering to her party’s liberal dogma on issues such as race, gun control, and judicial appointees, Hillary tilts toward the centre on economics, and even more so on national security and foreign policy. There’s no telling at this point how the war in Iraq will play in 2008, but one thing is certain: Clinton won’t struggle the way Kerry did to reconcile a vote authorising the war with one not authorising the $87bn to pay for it. For better or worse, she voted “aye” both times.
Yet another piece of received Washington wisdom holds that the party could never nominate someone in 2008 who has supported the Iraq war. Perhaps. But history suggests that if Bush’s mission in Iraq flounders, a politician as nimble as Clinton will have plenty of time to get out in front of any anti-war movement.
On domestic issues, Clinton has also shown a willingness to step out of the safety zone. She is bolstering her bipartisan credentials by teaming up with Republicans such as Lindsey Graham and Bill Frist, making her more difficult to portray as a radical. And w hile her liberal voting record on social issues remains intact, she has taken rhetorical steps toward the middle. The most notable example was January this year, when she advised abortion-rights activists to seek “common ground… with people on the other side.” While pledging to defend Roe v Wade, Clinton referred to abortion as a “sad, even tragic, choice” and called on Democrats to embrace a moral language for discussing it.
Will they vote for a woman?
Which brings us to the ultimate question: will Americans vote for a woman? They certainly say they will: 74 per cent told Gallup that they’d be either “somewhat” or “very” likely to vote for a woman in 2008. This number is actually on the low side compared to polls from the pre-Hillary era, for the obvious reason that Clinton casts a shadow over the 2008 election, and many of the respondents are Republicans who plan to vote against her. Again, I can hear some of my friends murmuring that these voters aren’t telling the truth.
In fact, there is no reason to doubt them, as they’ve been proving their willingness to pull the lever for female candidates for a long time. In 1999, 56 women sat in the House of Representatives, nine in the Senate. Only three women were governors. Now there are 14 women in the Senate and 66 in the House. There are eight, not three, women governors.
None the less, anyone who maintains that the electorate is ready for a female president (and this particular female candidate) must at some point confront the electoral college map. This, my sceptical friends claim, is where Hillary’s hopes really run aground. What red state could Clinton snatch away from the GOP? How about Florida? Cuban Americans are no longer the sole Latino voting bloc in Florida. If not Florida, how about Iowa and New Mexico? They are centrist, bellwether states—states Hillary’s husband carried both times. Meanwhile, the Republicans hardly have a lock on Ohio, which went for Bill Clinton twice, and was close in 2000 and 2004.
The fact is there are a thousand movable parts in a presidential campaign, but the two most indispensable are a candidate with 1) charisma, money, and a broad following in his or her party; and 2) a ticket that espouses values and policies that middle Americans agree with. A candidate, the polls now suggest, like Hillary Clinton. Or John McCain.
If the Republican faithful are smart enough to nominate him, John McCain would probably be their most formidable candidate. But the Republican conservative base remains leery of him. That this antipathy is self-defeating (or even inexplicable) makes it no less real. In addition, the easiest circumstances to imagine McCain winning the nomination would be if there were widespread disillusion with Bush. But the issue most likely to bring that about—a dire result in Iraq—probably doesn’t help McCain; if anything, he’s been more hawkish on foreign policy than the president. Even if other factors—a rotten economy or a scandal—led to a McCain candidacy, a GOP meltdown might carry McCain to the nomination, but it wouldn’t help him against Hillary Clinton. And, if conservatives could muster only half-hearted passion for the man (not unlike the less than enthusiastic support John Kerry received from many Democrats) well, we’ve seen that movie.
Clinton and Clinton
No candidate is without vulnerabilities, and Hillary certainly has hers. The difference between a winning and losing campaign, though, is whether you have a strategy to weather the rough waters. On the USS George W Bush, Karl Rove is considered the indispensable navigator. But when one looks on the Democratic side, who is a match for Rove? What recent Democrat has shown such an ability to see the political chessboard 20 moves ahead and plot a winning game plan? Only one, and to find him, Clinton need only look across the breakfast table.
Bill Clinton comes with strings attached. While it is an article of faith among the Clintonistas that Al Gore hurt his 2000 campaign by not using him more on the stump, many polls backed up Gore’s gambit. While Clinton could stir up the party faithful, his presence wasn’t always a net plus. Hillary faces a similar dilemma. But she would not make the more serious mistake Gore did: not exploiting the Clinton administration’s record of 22m new jobs; steady income growth for workers of every level; sharp declines in the welfare rolls; and an expanded Nato alliance that ushered in the post-cold war geopolitical map.
For all the disgust at the revelations about the infamous blue dress, and how Clinton often shaded the truth, he seems to be growing increasingly sure-footed and confident in his role as elder statesman. He has formed a friendship with the man he defeated for the office, and a productive working relationship with the current president. If he is to help his wife, all Clinton needs to do is remind us of his better angels, as he did during his tour of tsunami-devastated south Asia.
This brings us back to Hillary herself. Even if Bill Clinton rises to the occasion, voters are going to remember the yin and the yang of our 42nd president, and they are going to chew on the fact that the woman who wants to be our 44th is married to him. She will be asked about the marriage. How she answers will go a long way toward determining the viability of her candidacy. In his astute book on the Clinton presidency, The Survivor, John F Harris recounts how aides broached the subject of her marriage as Hillary prepared to run for the Senate. How would she answer this basic question: why had she stayed with him?
“Yes, I’ve been wondering that myself,” Hillary says playfully. Then Bill interjects: “Because you’re a sticker! That’s what people need to know—you’re a sticker. You stick at the things you care about.”
The trouble is that such a soundbite might confirm voters’ fears that Clinton’s marriage is a sham, and that she’s an opportunist. On the other hand, if the answer emerges that she loves Bill Clinton, despite his flaws, and that she’s in an imperfect marriage—well, most marriages are imperfect. Moreover, if she suggests that the deciding factor was her concern for their daughter, well, that’s the kind of pro-family cred that matters. Cute answers won’t cut it. Authenticity will. And there’s every reason to believe both Clintons could summon it when talking about the daughter to whom they are clearly devoted.
Finally, there is one perceived pitfall—and that’s Hillary’s penchant for the jugular. Party activists admire her for this, but successful presidential candidates learn to temper the instincts that result in outbursts like the “vast, right-wing conspiracy.” In upstate New York, Hillary has charmed independent Yankee farmers and small-town Republican businessmen from Buffalo with an inclusive, upbeat style of campaigning and governing. This is the dress rehearsal for running nationwide, yet when she gets going on the red meat circuit she retains a fondness for ad hominem attacks and paranoid worldviews. But she no longer has to pander to the Democrat base. From now on, she need emulate only Reagan, a fellow Illinois native, who campaigned with positive rhetoric and a smile on his face. Democrats will back her already, and much of the rest of America is watching, open-minded, half-hoping that she gives them a reason to support her, too.