The Magazine

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. 

This time, Republicans would be well advised to cast against type. They should consider a candidate who has not spent much time in Washington, somebody whose parents struggled to reach the middle class, someone who has had to work hard in the last 20 years to retain that status, somebody who is, if not hip, at least relatively young (the younger candidate has won the popular vote in the last six presidential elections). In general, one cannot overstate the power of symbolism in a presidential election. The vast array of issues that confront the electorate is bewildering, and an easy heuristic to deal with the messy questions of policy is: Which candidate has more empathy for people of my social and economic status? The Republicans should find a candidate who seems more empathetic than Hillary Clinton.

Beyond that, Republicans need a “Sister Souljah moment.” That is a reference to the time that presidential candidate Bill Clinton, in the presence of Jesse Jackson, publicly decried obscene lyrics in the music of rapper Sister Souljah. That sent a powerful signal, for the Democratic party of the 1980s had seemed in hock to the identity-politics hucksters of the professional left, Jackson in particular. Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis had given Jackson prominent roles at their conventions, reinforcing the impression that the Democratic party was angrier at America than anything else. Clinton expanded upon his rebuke of Sister Souljah with some tough words for his own party at his 1992 convention:

But, my fellow Democrats, it’s time for us to realize we’ve got some changing to do too. There is not a program in government for every problem, and if we want to use government to help people, we have got to make it work again.

Meanwhile Clinton mentioned “work,” “working,” or “hard work” 29 times in his 1992 address, and in so doing produced a lasting shift in the party’s image. No longer would it be the party of the radicals, the grievance mongers, or those blindly pushing government for its own sake. It would be the party that wields government to help those who are already working hard. That was the essence of the “New Democrat” label. 

Republicans need to do something similar for 2016. Elite quarters of the party will aver that the GOP’s Sister Souljah moment should be about gay marriage or immigration, but they are wrong. Looking at the 2012 exit polls provides a clue as to the party’s real problem. At its core, the electorate in 2012 was conservative in important respects. By a 51-43 margin, voters said that government was doing too much, as opposed to not enough. A plurality also said that Obamacare should be repealed, at least in part. And a plurality narrowly favored Romney over Obama on who could better handle the economy and the deficit. But there was a peculiar twist: When asked which issue “mattered most to people like you,” a plurality identified unemployment as the number one problem, and a decisive majority of those voters favored Obama, despite the fact that jobs were the centerpiece of the Romney campaign. Similarly, voters overwhelmingly said that Obama was “more in touch with people like you.” They also claimed that Obama’s policy favored the middle class over the rich, while Romney’s policies favored the rich over the middle class. Finally, a 55 percent majority of voters said that the “U.S. economic system favors the wealthy.” Obama won more than 70 percent of these voters. 

Since the 1880s, the Republican party has been joined at the hip with business interests in the public mind. When times are good, that is a boon for the GOP, but when times are bad, it is a serious political handicap, as it was in 1992, 2008, and 2012, and as it may be in 2016. Romney hoped to use his background in business to his advantage, but the exit polling indicates that it worked against him. This gave Obama enormous political cover to sidle up to his elite supporters, who enjoyed tremendous payoffs via the stimulus, Obamacare, and Dodd-Frank. The Clintons will probably do likewise. They will spend money donated by Goldman Sachs executives to run television ads decrying the influence of corporations like Goldman Sachs, all the while assuming that the GOP’s psychological connection with business will mask their blatant hypocrisy. 

This is the place for the Sister Souljah moment. The party has to find a way to signal to voters that, contrary to their expectations, the GOP will not govern as though it is in the pocket of corporate interests. That does not mean Republicans should embrace the Democratic party’s regulatory regime or buy into the false idea that one’s attitude to business is revealed exclusively by how many government agencies one creates to boss it around. After all, the Democrats do not simply regulate business, they subsidize it as well. Look at Obamacare’s individual mandate, a boon to insurers, or Dodd-Frank’s maintenance of “too big to fail,” a boon to big banks. Washington Democrats may spend half their time regulating business, but they spend the other half providing rents to businesses, at least those with high-powered lobbyists once employed by the Clinton administration.

The Republican party, unfortunately, is just as guilty of this sin as the Democratic party. What is called for, then, is an admission of the GOP’s past wrongs, a full-throated renunciation of the old practices, an unequivocal promise that a Republican administration will treat people equally, regardless of how much money they spend on lobbyists, and a reform agenda that seeks to embed these virtues in the law. All of this could be combined with an attack on the faux-populism of the Clintons; their folksy rhetoric has stood them in good stead for a generation, during which they have amassed an impressive record of clientelism that will make it difficult for them to counter a GOP assault on this front. 

Of course, this might not be enough to secure the Republicans’ prospects. An economic calamity would sink the standing of Barack Obama, the Democratic party, and the Clintons as well, in which case any reasonably qualified GOP nominee could probably win. Similarly, an economic boom might restore Obama’s reputation and render moot the entire GOP campaign, wafting Clinton into office on her predecessor’s coattails. But if the current state of affairs prevails—Obama is unpopular, but Democrats are united and Clinton remains detached from the incumbent in the public’s mind—the GOP should worry. This could produce something close to a 50-50 race, making the party’s message to the electorate of crucial importance. 

This is where a GOP reform agenda, proffered by the right sort of candidate, would be advantageous. The Clintons are formidable foes, and by 2016 they will have survived GOP attacks for 25 years. They know the Republican playbook inside out and have an answer for just about every attack the GOP is likely to launch. If the party wants to defeat them, it needs to throw the old strategies out the window and come up with something new. 

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