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The Democratic Frontrunner

If history is any guide, Hillary Clinton could be headed for a fall in 2008.

12:00 AM, Oct 26, 2005 • By CRAIG SHIRLEY
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ABC'S NEW SHOW, Commander in Chief, starring Geena Davis as the first female president of the United States, along with new books by Democratic political consultants Dick Morris and Susan Estrich, is fueling the notion that a woman can lead America. No one need guess who the liberals in Beverly Hills and Georgetown would like to see in the Oval Office.

But before anyone else in the Democratic party suggests short-circuiting the 2008 presidential nomination process and just handing the crown to Hillary Rodham Clinton, consider this: the Democratic party has rarely nominated its front runner in non-incumbent years. John Kennedy was not the frontrunner in 1960, it was former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson . . . or Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson . . . or Missouri Senator Stuart Symington . . . or Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey . . . which is why Kennedy had to campaign and win in all seven primaries that year to prove himself to the party elders.

In 1968, underdog Robert Kennedy would have surely wrested the nomination from the front runner, Vice President Humphrey, had he not been assassinated. And that's because the real frontrunner, incumbent President Lyndon Johnson, had been chased from the field by yet another underdog, Senator Gene McCarthy of Minnesota. In 1972, Senator Edmund Muskie and not the eventual nominee, Senator George McGovern, was the frontrunner. He fell to the peace candidate's grassroots brigade. McGovern also, for the first time, successfully used the Iowa caucuses to his advantage and developed important momentum, just as "Jimmy who?" Carter would do in 1976.

Only in 1984 did the frontrunner, Walter Mondale, win the nomination, after almost losing to the candidate of "new ideas," Senator Gary Hart. But four years later, in 1988, Michael Dukakis was certainly not the frontrunner when he won his party's nomination.

Senator Clinton knows from personal experience that her husband was not the frontrunner in 1992--New York Governor Mario Cuomo was. The next non-incumbent year, 2000, actually saw the frontrunner, Vice President Al Gore win the nomination. But this was, in many ways, the third nomination of Clinton, not the first for Gore. And we all remember last year when Howard Dean emerged as the leader of the pack over a talented field that included Senators John Kerry, John Edwards, and Joe Lieberman.

CURIOUSLY, and perhaps tellingly, the Republican party always nominates its frontrunner. Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Richard Nixon in 1960 and '68, Barry Goldwater in 1964, Gerald Ford in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bush "41" in '88, Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000 . . . were all frontrunners despite hotly contested campaigns in many of those non-incumbent years.

Although history is rarely a straight-line projection, it is also prologue; which is good news for Sen. John McCain, for a time (and bad news for Hillary Clinton). Interestingly, Republicans don't mind nominating men who have previously lost presidential runs--Nixon, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. But since 1956, Democrats have never nominated a previous presidential loser. So, if not Hillary, who?

By 2007, Democrats may well be asking themselves if they want to engage in another ideological orgy by nominating Sen. Clinton, who would have a difficult time winning the general election, like McGovern or Dukakis.

There is no doubt that Senator Clinton is as beloved by the liberal base of the Democratic party as she is despised by the conservative Republican base. In fact, these competing dynamics are often a function of the other. Still, by 2008, Democrats will have been out of the White House for eight years (and 20 of the previous 28 years). The question is, do they want power badly enough to foreswear their love for Hillary in order to mount a strategic effort based on their two most recent successful presidential campaigns: Carter in 1976 and Clinton in 1992. Both ran as moderate, Southern governors who did not hew to the liberal orthodoxy of the Democratic party. Both were able to persuade primary voters that it was they who could lead the Democrats down the sawdust trail of salvation. And Virginia Governor Mark Warner may be the 2008 candidate best suited to replicate the successes of Messrs. Clinton and Carter.

A moderate, Democratic governor of "Red State" Virginia, who can boast an impressive 70 percent approval rating in this state which has two Republican Senators, a GOP majority in its Congressional delegation, and GOP control of its state legislature. Warner is also personally wealthy, an excellent campaigner, and most importantly, will be unemployed after January 2006, giving him two years to campaign for president. He could also benefit from conservative angst over McCain (should the Arizona senator be the Republican nominee), as it is quite possible conservatives would find a right-of-center third party candidate to run for president, if only to stop McCain from gaining the White House.

So it's too soon for Republicans--and liberals--to be clinking Perrier glasses in the smoke free rooms of their K Street lobbying firms and DuPont Circle interest groups. Hillary Clinton hasn't won the nomination yet.

Craig Shirley is the president of Shirley and Banister Public Affairs and is the author of the critically acclaimed book, Reagan's Revolution; The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started it All about the 1976 campaign. He is now writing a book about Reagan's 1980 campaign.