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Not Ready for Hillary

Mar 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 27 • By JAY COST
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"Ready for Hillary” is the rather ominous name given to the super-PAC working on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s putative presidential campaign. One group that appears to be ready for Hillary, according to the Hill, is the vast array of lobbyists known as K Street: 

With Democrats in Congress already anointing Clinton as the party’s standard-bearer, lobbyists are pledging their allegiance and making clear they will do whatever they can to help the former first lady become first in command. .  .  .

Clinton has not yet revealed her plans for 2016. But after more than two decades in national politics as first lady, senator and secretary of State, she has a virtual army of Washington hands standing ready to serve as foot soldiers in a presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, Republicans seem to be less than ready for Hillary’s money. Consider that in 2008, she raised about $230 million for the primary battle alone, where she had to split the left’s big donors with Barack Obama. Four years later, Mitt Romney raised $450 million for the primary and the general. Those are numbers that should trouble Republicans now, for if Clinton runs again, it stands to reason that she will outraise the GOP nominee, who will probably have been burdened with an expensive primary battle.

The GOP has another problem with Hillary: In the last quarter-century, it has exhibited no facility for countering Clintonism in the public mind. This failure is arguably worse than any cash crunch; it does not matter how much money you spend making a bad argument if it is still a bad argument. And that is all the GOP ever seems to have against the Clintons. 

Republicans have had three at-bats against the Clintons—the elections of 1992 and 1996 and the impeachment proceedings of 1998-99—and struck out every time. To date, there is little evidence they have learned from their defeats. Rand Paul has been raising Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct, something that backfired while Clinton was president. Meanwhile, some Republican pundits are saying that Hillary Clinton has never really accomplished anything, a line that got George H.W. Bush nowhere in 1992.

Almost certain to be outraised and lacking any compelling case against the Clintons, the Republican party, it is fair to say, is not ready for Hillary. If anything, the classic Clinton shtick—“I feel your pain”—should play particularly well in this age of seemingly permanent economic anxiety.

Context is still important. In 1992, when Bill and Hillary Clinton waxed eloquent about the middle-class squeeze, they were flanked by an unemployed steelworker and a single mother working two jobs. Nowadays, they are more likely to have Warren Buffett on one side and Mick Jagger on the other. That’s the price you pay for being at the top of the world’s political, social, and economic hierarchy for a quarter-century: You are bound to lose touch with the “folks” (a Clintonian classic) who elevated you to those heights in the first place. In 1992 George H.W. Bush was the out-of-touch elitist who (supposedly) did not understand how a grocery scanner worked. In 2016, Hillary Clinton will not have driven her own car for 25 years. 

And therein lies the GOP’s best opportunity.

Put simply, the party should try to occupy the same political space the Clintons seized in 1992, and cast the Clintons in the role of the out-of-touch elitist. Bill’s appetite for the rock-star lifestyle—hobnobbing with the gilded elite in Davos rather than the diner crowd in Little Rock—facilitates this effort. So does Hillary’s presumably endless grasping for campaign contributions, which unmistakably connects her to the elite (and reviled) quarters of this country. Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein is already on board for Hillary, which tells you all you need to know. It should, in theory, be possible for the GOP to expose the hypocrisy of the Clintons’ pitch to the “forgotten middle class,” given that they seemingly have forgotten all about their own middle-class backgrounds.

That’s the theory, at any rate. In practice, success depends upon the nominee. Some candidates are well equipped to make a populist pitch to the middle class, others not. Republicans tend to nominate the latter type, whether longtime Washington insiders (Gerald Ford, Bob Dole, John McCain) or political scions (George W. Bush, Mitt Romney) or both (George H.W. Bush). The seemingly narrow caste of eligible GOP nominees has a lot to do with the party’s own addiction to special-interest money; these are, after all, the sorts of people who can raise the cash needed to run the ads to sway primary voters in Ohio and Florida. 

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