Hey, Wait A Minute

Hillary in 2004?

You (and all those Beltway journalists) have got to be kidding. 

Hillary Clinton in 2004? Why not? Empire State governors and senators are perpetual contenders for the White House, and the first lady already commands a national following and deep support among Democratic activists. Think of all those chits she can call in from elected officials and operatives. She also comes to the table with the fund-raising Rolodex that made her husband the biggest harvester of campaign cash in American history. And she’s a winner.

When you add up the first lady’s advantages it’s understandable why the right-wing media (Robert Novak) and the mainstream media (Sam Donaldson) are making the question of resurgent (Hillary) Clintonism such a topic of speculation. Understandable, that is, if you ignore the gazillion reasons why the idea of Hillary Clinton running for president is ridiculous.

To understand the outlandishness of this idea, consider the New York Senate race results. Hillary Clinton won her seat with 55 percent of the vote. But the margin of victory is less revealing than the way she came by it. Her campaign polarized the electorate between those who really, really wanted Hillary and those who really, really didn’t want her. That intensity of commitment on both sides allowed the relative-unknown Rick Lazio to bounce into the low- to mid-40s in the polls within days of entering the race. In the end it was the Hillary people versus the anti-Hillary people. But few states have as many Hillary people as New York.

This is all a way of saying that the first lady is a very divisive figure. Presidents can leave office as exceedingly divisive figures, but successful ones seldom enter the game that way. And that’s just the start of Sen. Clinton’s problems. She probably couldn’t win a single state that Al Gore lost in this election.

Here’s why.

Gore won virtually all the Northeast, all the West Coast, and nearly all the Industrial Midwest, but failed to win any other state except New Mexico. What did him in in the rest of the country was cultural liberalism—support for gun control, abortion rights, and gay rights. This handicap was particularly evident in Appalachia—West Virginia, Tennessee, western Pennsylvania, and southeastern Ohio. And who is more identified with cultural liberalism, Al Gore or Hillary Clinton?

Or frame the issue this way: A pressing problem for Democrats is their dwindling support among white men. Given the party’s mounting majorities among women and minorities, the fact that Republicans consistently win majorities of the white male vote is neither surprising nor even that troubling. But Democrats can’t afford to lose them in quite the numbers they have of late. George W. Bush beat Gore by almost 2-to-1 among white males (60 percent to 36 percent). And if we’re talking about voters in Ohio, western Pennsylvania, or Missouri, do you think candidate Hillary Clinton improves on that score? (Among white men in New York, Al Gore outpolled Hillary Clinton by 16 percentage points.)

There are those, of course, who say that Gore’s problem wasn’t so much cultural liberalism as the way his boss, Bill Clinton, seemed to personify the dark side of cultural liberalism—sexual license, moral relativism, irresponsibility, and so forth. But if that’s the case, should Democrats really take their next shot at the White House with Clinton’s wife?

Next we come to the question of political baggage: health care, the travel office mess, the FBI files question, the froth of Whitewater, the billing records, etc. I don’t believe there’s much of anything to these charges. But then, who cares? You don’t need to believe these charges to know that many people in the country do, and that fact has real political consequences.

Sure, Hillary would pull fevered support from her devoted supporters. But then most any serviceable Democratic candidate would get those people’s votes anyway and without guaranteeing the opposition of other voters, at least some of whom a Democratic presidential candidate very much needs. Even her greatest admirers have to admit that for a Democrat, Hillary Clinton’s public persona plays to cleavages in the national electorate in the worst way.

To get the nomination in the face of such an uphill struggle, a candidate needs a do-or-die base of support within the party or committed supporters among the party’s powers that be. Right-wingers may imagine that the barons of the Democratic Party obey Hillary Clinton. But most of them only like her. They don’t love her. They’d drop her in a second for someone who stood a better chance of winning the big prize. True, the apparent next chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terry McAuliffe, is a Clinton loyalist. But he only raises gobs of money. He can’t change the laws of gravity.

Of course, many of these shortcomings might also be ascribed to Bill Clinton, who leaves office with the highest approval ratings of any two-term president in the modern era. But Hillary Clinton is no Bill Clinton. The first lady ran an impressive campaign for a first-time candidate. But that’s grading on a curve. Her political skills don’t compare to those of her husband. One might argue that she could compensate for these problems by tacking to the right over the next four years, as her husband did in 1995 and 1996, but Hillary already ran on a fairly moderate agenda in 2000. What hobbles Hillary’s White House ambitions is the continued opposition to her as a person—and not just to her policy proposals.

A Hillary presidential candidacy seems so unworkable that you have to wonder what all the chatting is about. On the right, the question is easy to answer. Dittoheads and Hillary-haters are paranoid; right-wing fund-raisers regard the Hillary-presidency bogeyman as a cash cow they can milk for years. But what excuses do working journalists have? Some Washington journalists trapped in the Beltway echo chamber have convinced themselves that everybody named Clinton has mystical powers that allow them to overcome impossible odds. Another explanation is that a Hillary candidacy is more fun to talk about than explaining why it’s never going to happen.

If anything, Hillary Clinton is the probable successor to Teddy Kennedy, a talented legislator who is beloved among his party faithful, but whose politics and personal baggage barred him permanently from higher office. If you’re from Alabama or Idaho that may not sound like much of a compliment. But if you’re a liberal Democrat, or just someone who cares about things like universal health care, then it’s no mean accomplishment.

For Hillary Clinton to stand any chance of success in a presidential race, the Republicans would have to put up against her someone who polarizes the electorate from the right every bit as much as she does from the left. But, hey, John Ashcroft is coming on strong. So you never know.