Despite Hillary Clinton’s disappointing book sales, and a gaffe-prone publicity tour, she remains the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination. If anything, the last few weeks have only confirmed her advantage. Despite these disappointments and mis-steps, there is no substantial anti-Clinton movement building in the party. All we hear are crickets.
This is very peculiar, when we think about the role that the Clintons have long occupied in the Democratic party. They have long had a troubled relationship with the left wing. Bill Clinton left it on the outside looking in after the Republican wave election of 1994. He dealt with congressional Republicans on taxes, welfare, and entitlement reforms, with the left having little or nothing to do with it. Indeed, if you believe Steven Gillon’s account in The Pact, Clinton and Newt Gingrich were on the cusp of a grand bargain over entitlements and taxes that would have “privatized” Social Security, which liberal Democrats have harangued the GOP over. The only thing that killed the deal was the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
After that, the left wing struck back against the Clintons two times. First, in 2000 Ralph Nader played the spoiler, arguing that there was not a dime’s worth of difference between Clintonian Democrats and the Bush-style Republicans. Then, in 2008, Barack Obama mobilized the left wing of the Democratic party to pull off one of the greatest upsets in presidential history.
If anything, the Democratic party has only shifted toward the left, away from the Clintons, since 1996. How is it then that the Clintons are set for a major restoration, at least within their own party?
There are a lot of answers, of course, but one that I think has gone under-reported is: fear. At the least, Democrats have good reason to be afraid that their position in the electorate is not what it was just a few short years ago, and that Clinton offers an advantage in her personal reputation that no other Democrat can provide.
For a candidate who promised to undo the “mistakes” of the previous eight years, Barack Obama’s tenure looks awfully similar to his predecessor’s, at least insofar as their political trajectory goes. In his first term, Obama once had enormous political capital, lost it very quickly, and had to fight tooth-and-nail to win reelection, relying ultimately upon his core partisans. Sound familiar? In Obama’s second term, the parallels between the two have become downright eerie: external events have shattered an image of competent professionalism, exhausting their partisans and reducing their once-powerful political coalitions to a rump.
Taken together, the parallels are striking. I pulled this image from RealClearPolitics, and added a green line to signify 50 percent approval.
This is a problem for Democrats, compounded by the fact that they will be seeking their third consecutive term next year. Most of the time, parties lose that bid, and have always lost when the term-limited incumbent president is under 50 percent approval. It is not hard to understand why. The opposition party inevitably tags the (previously unknown) nominee -- whomever that may be -- as a clone of the incumbent president. That attack might not work completely, but voters who approach elections with informational constraints are inclined to see the connection.
Enter Hillary Clinton. Her partisans like to blather about how she is the most experienced candidate ever to run for office. This is nonsense, but she is probably one of the most well known. By the time 2016 rolls around, she will have been at the top of the national political heap for nearly a quarter century. Only a handful of presidential candidates can claim that sort of prominence; I can really only think of Thomas Jefferson in 1800, James Madison in 1808, and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Clinton is a known quantity, which means Democrats have reason to hope that her reputation is secure enough that she cannot be dragged down by an unpopular incumbent. People know her, seem to like her, and understand (so the hope goes) that she would be a change from Barack Obama. It helps on this score that she was his rival in 2008, and we still see frequent reports that their relationship remains chilly.
Interestingly, it was the exact opposite sentiment that helped force Clinton’s defeat 2008. Democrats saw themselves -- quite rightly -- as the overwhelming favorites that year. So, why play it safe with another Clinton? This year, the smart ones among them must recognize that winning a third term with an unpopular incumbent is a dodgy proposition, and so Clinton’s personal reputation is probably their best asset.
Will it work? It could. History does not really give us very many examples, but those they do provide offer at least a glimmer of hope.
In 1976 the Republican party sought a third consecutive term despite three pretty miserable years. Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace; the economy was tanking; faith in government was at an all time low. Yet Gerald Ford nearly defeated Jimmy Carter that year, and indeed may very well have won if the campaign lasted another week. The election of 1976 remains a historical peculiarity in that respect; Ford had a personal integrity that was evident to voters, and was well known enough to escape blame for the Nixon years. Carter had to run an ephemeral, emotive campaign talking about change in general; it would have been absurd to lump Ford in with Nixon. And in the end, it was only the uniform support of the South that pushed the Georgian peanut farmer over the top.
In 2008, the Republicans again had to fight for a third term despite some pretty lousy years. To that end, they nominated John McCain. While his personal reputation was not as well-established as Clinton’s, it was just as (if not more) sterling. It was a hard proposition indeed to lump McCain in with Bush, especially as the former had been a frequent and vocal critic of the latter. And McCain played his independence to the hilt. His campaign slogan was “Country First” (the subtext being that he did not heed the dictates of any political party), and his selection of Sarah Palin, a fellow “maverick” who had fought the (Republican) powers that be in her state, underscored this theme. Of course, McCain still lost, by quite a bit. Even so, Obama only broke it open after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and AIG in September 2008. Prior to the start of the Democratic convention, the two were tied in the Gallup poll.
Again, in both instances, the incumbent party lost. Still, it is not hard to envision scenarios in which they could indeed have pulled it out.
Democrats talk a robust game about how demographic changes are swamping the Republican party and leading to a permanent, left-wing majority. But, if that comes, it is years away. In 2016, the election will come down to the same handful of states and voters that have determined the outcome for the last 20 or so years: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and so on. Republicans remain competitive in all these states, as they all regularly feature statewide political leaders from both parties. Right now, Obama’s popularity is such that Democrats would struggle in all of them.
Hillary Clinton might offer them an easy way around that problem, which is probably her greatest strength as she gears up for another run at the White House.