The Big Idea

But Why Can’t Hillary Win?

Sen. Clinton’s electability problem.

Don’t like Hillary? Join the club!

Political insiders mostly agree: Despite being an early front-runner for the 2008 Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton faces long odds of ever being elected president. But if she can’t win, why can’t she?

One facile argument, often voiced by Hillary-loathers on the right, is that she’s too far to the left. The “real” Hillary is closer to Howard Dean than Bill Clinton, a recent piece in the National Review asserted. Wrong! An unhedged supporter of the war in Iraq, Sen. Clinton stands at the hawkish, interventionist extreme of her party on foreign policy. Despite her pandering vote against CAFTA, she’s a confirmed free-trader and deficit hawk. On the cultural issues that often undermine Democrats, she seeks common ground, sometimes with flat-earth conservatives like Rick Santorum, and has been nattering about the “tragedy” of abortion. Even Hillary’s notorious government takeover of health care was misconstrued as an ultra-lib stance. In opting for a mixed, private-public managed-competition plan, the then-first lady was repudiating the single-payer model long favored by paleo-liberals. Her plan was flawed in many ways, but it wasn’t what Ted Kennedy wanted.

In fact, Sen. Clinton’s political positioning couldn’t be better for 2008. Despite being a shrewdly triangulating centrist on the model of her husband, she remains wildly popular with the party’s liberal core: It seems to share the right’s erroneous view of her as a closet lefty and draws closer to her with every inane conservative attack. There’s no other possible candidate in either party so well poised to claim the center without losing the base. 

A related objection, which one hears from various corners, is that Hillary is “too polarizing” a figure to win. “I’m one of the few in the semi-inner circle who don’t think she can win,” her adviser Harold Ickes Jr. told Time just after the 2004 election. “It would be a brutal, bruising fight. It would make this year’s race look like kindergarten.” Ickes is surely correct that any contest involving Hillary will get nasty and ugly. Conservatives would find it absurdly easy to whip up their base against her. But why should that spell automatic defeat for a Democratic nominee? Howard Dean, who creates intense polarization among the factions within his own party, would probably be doomed as a nominee. But a disciplined centrist who can unify her side while leading her own base into furious battle—the way Ronald Reagan did—may be just the kind of polarizer who can win.

What, then, of the complaint that Hillary is doomed by association with her husband, or perhaps by their marital issues? This problem encompasses various assumptions—that voters don’t want to be embarrassed by the name Monica Lewinsky again, that they don’t accept Hillary’s marriage as authentic, or that another 50,000 late-night comedy jokes about her horndog husband would somehow crush her chances. The conservative attack machine would surely make the most of all these vulnerabilities. But let’s not forget that Bill is an asset as well. Swing voters feel positively about his presidency, and increasingly about his post-presidential role. Many would welcome his policy acumen, experience, and political wisdom back to the White House. And, let’s admit it—our culture plainly can’t get enough of naughty celebrities. Would Florida and Ohio really choose a dull opportunist like Bill Frist over four more years of excellent Clinton drama? 

Another theory that doesn’t impress me is that misogyny would keep Hillary out of the White House. America hasn’t yet had a really good female presidential candidate even in the primaries (I’m talking about you, Liddy Dole). On what basis do we assume that the country wouldn’t elect the right woman? Britain, where there remains far more overt sexism in public life, made Margaret Thatcher prime minister more than two decades ago. Other, far more traditional, societies, including Muslim ones, have been led by women. Hillary does bring out weird phobias in some of her more wacko antagonists. But these foamers aren’t voting Democratic in any case. And the primitive misogynists would surely be outnumbered by those eager to smash the ultimate glass ceiling. 

Yet Hillary does face a genuine electability issue, one that has little to do with ideology, woman-hating, or her choice of life partner. Plainly put, it’s her personality. In her four years in the Senate, Hillary has proven herself to be capable, diligent, formidable, effective, and shrewd. She can make Republican colleagues sound like star-struck teenagers. But she still lacks a key quality that a politician can’t achieve through hard work: likability. As hard as she tries, Hillary has little facility for connecting with ordinary folk, for making them feel that she understands, identifies, and is at some level one of them. You may admire and respect her. But it’s hard not to find Hillary a bit inhuman. Whatever she may be like in private, her public persona is calculating, clenched, relentless—and a little robotic.

With the American electorate so closely divided, it would be foolish to say that Hillary, or any other potential nominee, couldn’t win. And a case can be made that the first woman who gets elected president will need to, as Hillary does, radiate more toughness than warmth. But in American elections, affection matters. Democrats lost in 2000 and 2004 with candidates Main Street regarded as elitist and aloof, to a candidate voters related to personally. Hillary isn’t as obnoxious as Gore or as off-putting as Kerry. But she’s got the same damn problem, and it can’t be fixed.