The 2014 election was a disaster for Hillary Clinton. Why? Let us count the ways.
She will have to run against an energetic and motivated Republican Party. If the GOP had failed to capture the Senate, the loss would have been more than demoralizing. It would have led to serious discussion of a third party. Donors would have reconsidered whether their spending was worth the reputational cost. Candidate recruitment efforts would have stalled. Republican voters would have asked why they bother to show up. The Republican circular firing squad, always a problem, wouldn’t use conventional weapons. They’d use ICBMs.
Clinton would have loved to capitalize on this scenario. It would have enabled her to prolong strategic decisions such as how and when and to what degree she breaks from Obama. She would have claimed partial credit for saving the Senate. She would have promised to build on Democratic success. You would have been able to see her aura of inevitability for miles.
But she has been denied. Instead she must calculate how to salvage the wreckage of 2014. She must convince Democrats that their savior is a grandmother who lives in a mansion on Massachusetts Avenue. It is her party that is shell shocked, not the GOP. Trust me: You don’t want to be in that position.
The results also showed that the electorate looks forward rather than backward. Clinton’s 2016 argument will be based in part on recollection. Her message: If you liked the 1990s, the last period of broad-based growth and full employment, put my husband and me back in the White House.
But voters are not retrospective. They judge based on the conditions of the moment. In 2010, Democrats tarred Rob Portman as a former Bush official. In 2014, they tried something similar with congressional candidate Elise Stefanik. Both Portman and Stefanik won.
This year, several candidates ran explicitly as "Clinton Democrats." They tried to associate themselves with fond and gauzy memories of a better time. They lost. Arkansas—the birthplace of Bill Clinton, the test tube of Clintonism—became a GOP stronghold. Tom Cotton defeated Mark Pryor by 17 points. The Clintons’ star power, such as it is, was overwhelmed by the Republican wave of discontent and anger at liberal incompetence.
The Clintons aren’t gods. They are human beings—extremely, terribly, irredeemably flawed human beings.
Their specialty: Mitigating Democratic losses among whites without college degrees. In 2014, the Clintons couldn’t stop the bleeding. Republicans won the white working class by 30 points. And it will be difficult for Hillary Clinton to reduce this deficit over the next two years.
That is because of her problematic position as heir apparent to an unpopular incumbent. Her recent talk of businesses and corporations not creating jobs illustrates the dilemma: She has to identify herself with her husband’s legacy in Elizabeth Warren’s left-wing Democratic Party, while dissociating herself with the repudiated policies of the president she served as secretary of State. Has Clinton ever demonstrated the political skill necessary to pull off such a trick?
A failed president weighs heavily on his party. He not only drags it down in midterm elections such as 2006, 2010, and 2014. He kills its chances in presidential years. Think Hubert Humphrey. Think John McCain.
The McCain-Clinton comparison is worth considering. Both would be among the oldest presidents in American history. Both are slightly at odds with their party: McCain on campaign finance and immigration, Clinton on corporatism and foreign policy. Both lost the nomination to the presidents they sought to replace. Both campaigned for rare third consecutive presidential terms for their parties in the cycle after those parties lost Congress.
The environment was so hostile to Republicans by the time Election Day 2008 arrived, and the Democrats had so successfully defined themselves in complete opposition to the incumbent, that McCain didn’t have a chance. But who in 2006 had predicted that a financial crisis would be the most important issue of 2008? Who in 2012 had the slightest idea that the Islamic State and Ebola and illegal migration would be factors in 2014? Who in 2014 knows with even the faintest degree of certainty what will loom over the electorate on Election Day 2016?
Russia, Iran, Syria, Iraq, North Korea, and al Qaeda are not moving to another planet. The Federal Reserve is not about to acquire the power of prophecy. The business cycle is exactly that—a cycle.
I do know this: Whatever voters are upset about two years from now, they are unlikely to hold it against John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. They are more likely to direct their ire at the president and his party: Hillary Clinton’s party.
Do the Democrats begin presidential campaigns with the advantage? Absolutely. The distribution of the population, the composition of the presidential electorate, and the clustering of liberal voters in major metropolitan areas give the party of government a head start in the race to 270 electoral votes. Republicans can win. But, like in 2000 and 2004, it will be close.
What the 2014 results suggest, however, is that the "coalition of the ascendant" that elected and reelected Barack Obama may be more tied to him personally than to a generic Democrat. The panicked racial appeals to motivate black turnout failed not only because conditions are poor, but also because Obama was not on the ballot. The significance of electing the first black president, and then of legitimating his first term, did not apply. Nor will it in 2016, in which voters are likely to once again face a choice between two white people.
A lot will depend on those two candidates. If there was a sure lesson in 2014, it was that candidate performance matters. Colorado, Iowa, and Arkansas are the clearest examples of states where the Democratic Senate candidate became an embarrassment, and his Republican opponent made no unforced errors. The importance of candidates was also the lesson of Virginia, where Ed Gillespie used substance, clever advertising, and a winning personality to come within striking distance of Mark Warner. It was the lesson of New Hampshire, where Scott Brown’s reputation as a carpetbagger may have prevented a tenth GOP pickup. And it was the lesson of Maryland, a deep blue state where the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Anthony Brown, stumped so poorly coming off two terms of Martin O’Malley that partisan and demographic advantages could not save him.
Hillary Clinton is famous, ambitious, methodical, and clever. As I write, she faces no significant challengers for the Democratic nomination. She is the frontrunner to win the 2016 election. But she is not flawless. Her political skills are limited. She says things she later walks back. She represents the past. There are so many skeletons in her family’s closets that the skeletons have closets. Her favorable numbers have already returned to Earth, and she will spend the next two years under attack by both Democrats and Republicans.
Faced with a younger, positive, appealing Republican candidate who avoids gaffes and runs not on amnesty and entitlement reform, but on a platform aimed at middle-class families and working-class whites, there is no telling how Hillary Clinton would look, how she would perform, what choices she would make. And if she slips and falls, who’s going to rescue her? David Brock?