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Jan 15 2014

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Can Hillary Clinton Win?

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Not Unbeatable...

Not Unbeatable…

Hillary Clinton was in the news again last week, and not in a good way.

In advance excerpts from of a new book, “HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton,”  we learn that the 2008 Clinton campaign kept a sophisticated, point-driven “enemies list” of those that the Clintons’ had helped politically and who had subsequently betrayed them by supporting Barack Obama.

This otherwise unhelpful revelation is but one story in an avalanche of generally adoring media coverage on Mrs. Clinton over the past year that seeks to answer what the professional media consider the most pressing question in American politics:  Will she, or won’t she?

The media formulation of the question is correct, but the application is wrong. Indeed, environmentalists should be properly appalled by the deforestation necessary to print all the breathless stories wondering if Mrs. Clinton will seek the presidency in 2016.

Of course she’s going to run for president in 2016…

Has the political class lapsed into a fugue state after 25 years of first-hand experience with the Clintons? There is nothing – nothing – in the Clinton MO that points to anything but a certain Hillary candidacy in 2016. History certainly demands a female president. And as the most visible and accomplished female politician of her time, Mrs. Clinton certainly deserves to be that candidate.

No, the right question is whether Mrs. Clinton can win?

Strangely, this is largely taken for granted.

“If Hillary runs, she wins” is the acceptable conventional wisdom. Even many experienced Republicans agree, seeing an HRC campaign akin to the Visigoths cresting the Seven Hills towards Rome – inexorable and inevitable.

But on closer inspection, the evidence simply is not there; certainly not to support the certainty of another Clinton presidency.

So what do we know?

First, the advantages.

Mrs. Clinton comes to the 2016 race in a truly rare situation for a Democrat, blessed with an overwhelming number of decisive political advantages. She is one of the best known political figures in the country, and first among equals among female Democratic politicians. HRC has a varied and substantive resume with big title jobs, leaving her post as Secretary of State with approval ratings higher than her former boss, and with the political gravitas conferred by the nearly 18 million votes she won in the 2008 primaries – more than the winning candidate, Obama himself.  And with a quarter century in the national spotlight, Team Clinton has amassed a network of financial, political, corporate and grass-roots support that is only bested (marginally) by President Obama – the grand dame of community organizing.

Adding to this embarrassment of riches, Mrs. Clinton is also the beneficiary of calculation and circumstance.

Despite hard feelings from 2008, former president Bill Clinton went all in for President Obama in 2012. This was at least suspicious given published reports at the time that the former President felt   POTUS was deeply in over his head. Yet as the Obama-anointed “Secretary of Explaining Things,” Bill Clinton’s was indispensable as the President’s political interpreter. Indeed, 42’s defense of the Obama record at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) was a better rationale for POTUS’ re-election than the President himself could make. And Obama needed him – to reassure the American people that the most popular, former, living president was enthusiastically behind him provided a vital seal of approval after a troubled first term.

Anyone who would believe that Bill Clinton would make this extraordinary effort out of charity or party loyalty alone, simply doesn’t understand the Clintons. It may not yet be apparent, but the “fix” such as it is, is in – all that is left to do is for Mrs. Clinton to collect.

In addition, Mrs. Clinton is blessed by a Democratic bench that isn’t particularly deep in 2016 (akin to the GOP in ’12), with few truly standout candidates. Also, the ever-present sense of Democratic purpose and destiny is working in her favor.

Having nominated and elected the first African-American president, it seems only fitting that the Democratic follow-up be the first woman president – and who better to take up the mantle than the jilted runner-up from ’08 – which has the added benefit of allowing all those who defected from Team Hillary in the wave of Obamamania – either through buyer’s remorse or to assuage their guilt – to again feel good about themselves.

This uniformity of consensus – unusual in national Democratic politics and unheard of three years before the election – has led to a slew of endorsements and early fundraising. All 16 female Senators have apparently written to Clinton, urging her to run. NY Senator Chuck Schumer has already pledged his support. Mother Jones reports that Super Delegates to the 2016 convention are already blowing Clinton kisses, while Super PACs are up and running, bring in record amounts of money.

And this is only 2013.

One can only imagine what the playing field will look like when the Clinton machine is operational and fully deployed – a mesh of Team Obama’s grass-roots analytics and Chicago hardball, powered by the combined financial and political resources of two most influential Democratic politicians today (42 & 44).

Elite certainty in Hillary validated then, right?  All that’s left to do is figure out the Inaugural seating and patronage?

No.

Clinton comes to 2016 with liabilities of her own making, as well as those beyond her control;  liabilities that no amount of money or organization can overcome on their own.

Grassroots Winds Blow Hard Left: it is difficult for mainstream voters, let alone Republicans, to imagine that President Obama has been a bitter disappointment for the Democratic, progressive base. But he has been. They wanted “single payer” health care, large tax increases on the rich, a crackdown on corporation greed, comprehensive climate change legislation to cripple the fossil fuel industry, new procedures to force unionization, huge new spending on education, expansion of the welfare state, amnesty for illegal aliens. The list goes on. From their perspective, Obama has been at best, ineffectual. These folks are clearly looking for something more authentic, and that doesn’t look like Hillary Clinton.

Despite apparently signing on to a letter urging Hillary to run, and a jaw-dropping lack of experience, newly elected Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA) has gotten early attention from the progressive grass-roots for her unapologetic populism and defense of consumers. Brian Schweitzer, the former governor of Montana, has also been mentioned as someone more in line with the base of the Democratic party and a new populist hue. And then there is the unknown woman who took Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat and has become a force of her own, Kirsten Gillibrand.

Beyond the grass-roots, there are Democratic governors with a record of accomplishment that would certainly jump if the political winds seemed less certain for Mrs. Clinton.  Andrew Cuomo of New York, heir to his own political dynasty that is intertwined with the Clintons, has a strong record that could impress.  Martin O’Malley of Maryland (whose political rise is fictionally chronicled in the HBO series, “The Wire”) less so, but he seemingly makes up for it in enthusiasm.

Any of these candidates – or others still unknown may be a threat to HRC from the left.

A Generational Divide:  with the exception of Warren, talk of other 2016 contenders raises another, more uncomfortable issue for Team Clinton – age. Not in relation to capacity to govern – Reagan in practice and McCain in theory put that to rest, but rather in terms of contemporary fit with the country and polity.

Mrs. Clinton will be 69 in 2016, with 25 unbroken years in the national spotlight; as a candidate’s wife, First Lady, Senator, presidential candidate and Secretary of State. Hillary is as much of apart of our collective political consciousness as the events themselves that date back to 1991. There are many descriptors for someone like that, but the sacrifice of longevity is the capability to excite or inspire.

Just ask Bob Dole.

In contrast, the next generation of potential Democratic candidates are potentially more in tune with today’s voters,  shaped more by the events and issues of the 80s,  90s and ’00s than the 60s and 70s, which are of fading relevance (Millennials)  but are critical to understanding Mrs. Clinton political construct.

Schweitzer will be the second oldest ’16 at 61. Cuomo will be 57, O’Malley 53 and Gillibrand just 50. Indeed, in the aftermath of President Obama’s historic election at the tender age of 47, are Democrats really prepared to turn to  someone four years past eligibility for Social Security as his natural successor?

Ambition may burn bright, but history moves as times change.

Principles: what does Hillary Clinton believe in? Truly believe in?

Does anybody know?

In the 16 years between his speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and his presidential election in 1980, anyone – friend or foe – knew where Ronald Reagan stood as a matter of principle. Reagan’s public image was indistinguishable from the principles he held so dearly.

Does anyone have the same clarity of certainty on Mrs. Clinton?

What is clear is that more than any issue or set of issues, Mrs. Clinton seems to care mostly about herself and her political viability. In this paradigm, issues become malleable tools whose only purpose is to support viability.  Thus in practice, Mrs. Clinton can vote for the Iraq war and against the Surge for years later (admitting, according to Robert Gates’ book, that she did so to keep in step with the Democratic base) without missing a beat.

And truth be told, voters are mostly complicit in this tawdry state of affairs. We accept, indeed expect Clintonian positioning on issues because as citizens, we relate to Mrs. Clinton not by her principles but by her personal drama.

The striving, feisty First Lady who refused to be cowed by traditional roles, the vindictiveness and paranoia around Whitewater (and seen again in the ’08 enemies list), the betrayal and humiliations engineered by her husband and Obama, the redemption of her Senate win.

A second presidential run is not so much about what HRC would do as president, as it would be about the fulfillment of a long-running personal, historical narrative should she win. In a very real way, Mrs. Clinton will be running because that is what ambition and history demand. For that reason, the presidential candidate that she most resembles is Teddy Kennedy, who burdened by a tragic familial past, and with a similar sense of entitled destiny, could provide no comprehensible answer to Roger Mudd when asked in 1980, why he wanted to be president.

Ambition for its own sake is not a governing agenda.

Accomplishments: what has Mrs. Clinton accomplished, really?

The deeply flawed Hillarycare initiative of ’93-94 was as much about the proposed legislation as it was about her controversial and secretive leadership of it.  It bears noting that as a direct result of Mrs. Clinton’s health care effort, Democrats suffered one of the worst electoral defeats in at least two generations, changing the course and trajectory of her husband’s presidency. This is certainly not a net positive, particularly in light of Obamacare.

What was Clinton’s hallmark legislation during her Senate tenure?  Seven years and not a single, notable law? Mrs. Clinton did receive high marks from her colleagues for her humility and “roll up her sleeves” approach, given her star power as a freshman Senator. And her constituent work on behalf of the people of New York was as impressive as it was formidable, but those are the mechanics of office, not the substance of leadership. When crunch time came, Mrs. Clinton defaulted to inflammatory rhetoric and political votes.

And what about her tenure as Secretary of State? Clinton traveled millions of miles to scores of countries. During her stewardship America was coping with the Euro-zone meltdown, the rise of China, North Korean saber-rattling, the Afghanistan Surge, the Arab Spring, Iranian nuclear ambitions and the collapse of Syria.

But the one word that defines Mrs. Clinton’s tenure?  Benghazi.

It ironically justifies his place on Hillary’s “enemies list” that John Kerry has been more consequential (if with uncertain results) with less than a year on the job, than Mrs. Clinton was in four years as SecState.

The Opposition:  despite the apparent weaknesses, it is certainly possible that with unlimited money, organization and a weak field, that Mrs. Clinton has the capability to  claim the Democratic nomination. But that is only half the way to the presidency. To get to the White House, Mrs. Clinton is going to have to get past the Republicans, a task that will be far more complicated and difficult that may presently appear.

2016 will in all likelihood be the year of the newcomer for the GOP. With the exception of Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, there will be no ’12 retreads in the race. And the GOP bench is deep for the next go around, with a flavor to galvanize Republicans and conservatives of every stripe.  Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio round out a trio of Senators who appeal broadly to Tea Party conservatives.  Paul Ryan looks fresh, consequential and statesmanlike if he decides to jump in.  And that’s just Congress.

Republicans have a formidable field of governors with proven – successful – track records of conservative governance; governance specifically at odds with what President Obama has implemented on the national level. It will make for intriguing contrasts.

Unless Chris Christie is auditioning as the new Nixon, “Bridge-gate” will fade and he will remain a GOP contender. Both Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio have tough re-elections to get through in ’14, but would have immediate presidential allure if successfully re-elected. Bobby Jindal wonders whether 2016 is his year.  And there is the candidate who could meet the Clinton organization in money and network on Day #1 – Jeb Bush.

It is noteworthy that every candidate mentioned here is younger than Hillary Clinton, some by more than 20 years. Barring the entry of Bush, it is a new generation of Republicans, mostly new on the national stage, with a different message to contrast with Obama governance and Obama failures.

While there is little doubt that the Republican primaries will be messy and for a period uncertain, they will also drive Republican energy for the eventual nominee (not unlike 1980). Differences between Tea Party and mainstream conservatives have always been more over tactics than policies, creating bridgeable gaps that can make a united GOP a real factor for the fall. Youth and change will be on the GOP side this time.

In contrast, Mrs. Clinton will be trying to re-introduce an old and vacuous brand as something new and worthy. No VP selection can make up for the lost luster of the nominee, no matter how experienced (see McCain).

And, like it or not, Mrs. Clinton will be saddled as the foil for serial Obama policy failures, creating is own paradox. If she runs from the President’s record, she infuriates her restive base, if she embraces the President, she alienates the general election Independents. It’s a no-win.  HRC’s only hope right now is that Obamacare works and the economy grows.

Who’s in a betting mood…..

It’s late October 2016. Republican nominee, Governor Scott Walker (WI) and his running mate, Governor Susana Martinez (NM) are barnstorming the country, talking about their consequential record of success in two deep blue states, and the conservative governance that they will bring to Washington to restore honesty, confidence, competence and hope.

You want to take a bet against that?

Hillary Clinton is not unbeatable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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