Paper Tigress

Column: Why Hillary is less ‘inevitable’ than you think

April 5, 2013

One of the most boring weeks during my time in Washington has given the press an opportunity to indulge in a gross habit: inflating Hillary Clinton’s already considerable reputation.

The Los Angeles Times ridiculously and melodramatically says that this week Clinton "return[ed]" to the "public stage"—a location from which she has never moved an inch since her husband won his first gubernatorial campaign in Arkansas in 1978—"for the opening scene in what many expect to be a carefully plotted performance concluding with another presidential try."

Clinton sits atop the polls. Her next book will be released in the middle of the midterm campaign. Her allies are working to elect crony Terry McAuliffe governor of Virginia in what Politico calls the "first test" of 2016. James Carville has signed on with a pro-Clinton Super PAC. The nation awaits only the formal announcement of Hillary’s candidacy.

The media cheering section is as triumphalist and boorish as ever. "Many savvy GOP insiders conceded that any Republican nominee would face an uphill battle against the former Secretary of State," Business Insider reports. Clinton is in "a class well above the rest" of potential 2016 contenders, writes John Dickerson of Slate and CBS News. "No non-incumbent in the history of contemporary U.S. presidential politics ever looked so formidable three years before an election," writes Al Hunt.

But Hunt is wrong. I can easily think of another "non-incumbent in the history of contemporary U.S. presidential politics" who looked "so formidable three years before an election." Her name was Hillary Clinton. The election was in 2008. And, you might have noticed, she never became president—indeed, she never became the Democratic nominee.

But oh, was she "formidable." Everybody said so. "The question is not whether she can win the primary," Carl Cannon wrote in the Washington Monthly in the summer of 2005. "Do not underestimate this woman!" shrieked Dick Morris, with his usual accuracy, in his book Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race released that year. "I do think she’s inevitable as the nominee, or pretty close to it," a "prominent Democratic operative" told New York Times columnist Bob Herbert in May 2006. The bandwagon carried on into the following year, with Dan Balz writing in the Washington Post that Clinton "now sits atop the Democratic field, in a tier by herself."

Clinton held the commanding heights of the polls. In 2005, Gallup found she was the "clear early favorite" for the 2008 nomination. The trend continued into 2006. That fall, when Mark Warner announced he would not run, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll wrote on Real Clear Politics that it was "a telling statement" of "the inevitability of Hillary Clinton’s presidential nomination in 2008." In November 2007, Gallup came out with another poll showing Clinton with a 27-point lead over her closest rival, a nobody from Illinois named Barack Obama.

Two months later Obama won the Iowa caucuses. Clinton’s aura of inevitability disappeared. And while Clinton’s fans, like speculators in a Tulip bubble, would like us to believe that "this time is different," they have yet to provide any good reason for why that is so. Clinton is "tested," they say. She’s been through this before. It’s her turn. But wasn’t it also her turn eight years ago? And hadn’t she been through two U.S. Senate elections before 2008? And isn’t the wife of Bill Clinton going to be "tested" on a fairly regular basis?

The gussying up of Clinton’s standing is one of the silliest political exercises of our time. The argument for her inevitability is a stilt house resting on achingly fragile assumptions. The first is that past performance does not indicate future results. But Hillary blew it before. Explain to me why it’s certain she won’t blow it again?

The second assumption is that she will frighten off the competition. But why would any ambitious Democrat look at what happened in 2008 and not see an opportunity in 2016? If President Barack Obama’s second term is perceived to be a success, with a growing economy, the successful implementation of Obamacare, and perhaps even a bipartisan budget deal, then the logical person to carry on his legacy for four more years wouldn’t be his former secretary of state. It would be his current vice president—a man who, I might add, has far more personality and energy on the stump than Hillary Clinton; was far closer to the center of power than she; and seems also to be preparing for 2016.

And if Obama’s second term is not perceived as a success, well, there are several Democrats not named Hillary who are in a position to make the "we can do better" pitch to the base. Foremost on the list: Martin O’Malley, a charming and skilled politician who is establishing himself on the left wing of the party while turning Maryland into Liberal Land. Two New York Catholics, Andrew Cuomo and Kirsten Gillibrand, have been at the vanguard of Northeast liberalism. The Western Democrats Hickenlooper of Colorado and Schweitzer of Montana have their own, libertarian-tinged arguments to make. Laugh all you want, but if California is really undergoing a comeback, what’s to stop rascally old Jerry Brown from having a go? He’s taken on a Clinton before. Janet Napolitano for some reason keeps dropping hints she’d like to run.

A third assumption is that Clinton has a lock on the minority vote. Clinton in 2008 relied on support from white working class Democrats whose ranks dwindle every day. And while she did well among Hispanics, she did not do well enough to counteract Obama’s huge margins with blacks. For the Democrats to win a third consecutive presidential term depends heavily on their 2016 nominee’s ability to maintain Obama-like levels of support from the African-American community. There happens to be a well-regarded Democratic black governor with an impressive resume and two terms of executive experience in Massachusetts. Just because we don’t hear regularly from Deval Patrick doesn't mean he's not thinking of running for president. Like a lot of the names mentioned above, he is probably trying to figure out the money situation that would permit him to do so.

Which leads us to a fourth assumption: that Clinton will rack up the top bundlers and donors before the race begins. That looked like the case last time—until Maureen Dowd’s Feb. 21, 2007, column in which David Geffen announced he was betting on Obama. That cleared the way for big money to flow to the future president. All it would take to make the 2016 Democratic race competitive is for a big donor to swing behind Biden or one of the insurgents.

This is easy to see happening in a post-Citizens United world. Recall how billionaires were able to keep their favored candidates alive in the 2012 GOP contest. And look at how wealthy investor and environmental radical Tom Steyer is pouring money into the Democratic primary to replace John Kerry in Massachusetts. Steyer wants to defeat Democratic proponents of the Keystone Pipeline. Two other liberal moneybags are threatening to finance campaigns against Democrats reluctant to back the gun control agenda of New York liberals. The Republicans are not the only political party with fractures.

The pro-Clinton media, though, assumes that she will somehow remain aloof from real-life, every day, divisive politics. The key to her high favorable numbers, Nate Silver points out, is precisely that "she has remained largely above the partisan fray that characterizes elections and fights over public policy." But that will end if she runs for president. Candidate Clinton will have to state positions that will not satisfy everyone, not even every Democrat.

In 2008, Clinton assumed her eminence would insulate her from criticism of her position on Iraq. That did not happen. Already in this cycle she has had to play catch-up on same-sex marriage, announcing her support almost a year after Joe Biden announced his. One of these days something will come up that will separate Clinton from the rich men who finance her party. Out of elective office since 2009, she may have more trouble finessing issues than the governors and senators who have to make controversial decisions regularly. Her numbers will fall.

Finally, there is the assumption that Clinton has been thoroughly vetted. "Do conservatives really believe that if Hillary Clinton does run for president, Americans will care a bit about the old stories from the 1990s?" asks a pom-pom waving Michael Tomasky. Granted, he has something of a point. But Tomasky ignores the fact that Americans may care more than a bit about new stories from the 2010s.

"What difference at this point does it make?" is not the final word on what happened in Benghazi in September 2012. What is more, Clinton is linked, for better or worse, to the success or failure of President Obama’s foreign policy. What happens in the Koreas, the South China Sea, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, Europe, and Mexico over the next four years will shape perceptions of her legacy and determine the matrix of issues on which she will have to take a stand. Should there be a second-term Obama administration scandal, she would have to relate to that as well.

Her finances and business relationships will be scrutinized. Her husband’s foundation and world traveling will be a treasure trove for opposition researchers. God only knows what else he’s been up to. Or what he might say on the campaign trail.

Any of these things could be a wrench in the Clinton inevitability machine.

Now, I could be wrong. Maybe Hillary Clinton is on a glide path to the 2016 Democratic nomination and then the presidency. But aren’t we obligated, in this supposedly data-driven, scientific, all-too-cynical age, to look skeptically on the messages emanating from the political and cultural establishment? Especially when a media that hilariously believes it speaks truth to power is parroting those messages? And when what they are saying, in exactly the same terms, was falsified spectacularly only five years ago?

Michael Tomasky writes of a "Hillary Derangement Syndrome." Time to look in the mirror.