Republicans for Hillary

Are they pretending she’s a strong presidential candidate? Or do they really believe it?

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Republicans don’t vote in Democratic primaries, which is why it’s something of a surprise that they’ve already chosen the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee: Hillary Clinton. Karl Rove has declared that “anybody who thinks that she’s not going to be the candidate is kidding themselves.” Key GOP activists and fund-raisers are signing up with John McCain and telling his advisers they think he’s the only one who can beat her in a general election. Conservative John Podhoretz has skipped over the electoral process altogether and is ready to make Clinton president. In the newly released, Can She Be Stopped?, he argues that without an immediate programmatic effort to dismantle her, she will beat the Republican candidate in 2008.

Of course, letting your political opponent pick your party’s nominee is like letting your mother pick your fiance. They have no idea what you want, and their motives aren’t pure. It’s a conventional political trick for partisans to anoint the rival party leader they most hope to face. Republicans might well say she’ll be the nominee in the hopes of putting her on the Commander in Chief trajectory: overblown hype leading to a spectacular flameout. Conservative direct-mail vendors have a particular interest in touting her. She is so reviled in Republican circles that they can reduce their fund-raising appeals to a single word: Hillary. For other Republicans, she is a comforting object of scorn—with their party in such dire shape, railing about her is the one thing they can all agree upon. But so many rank-and-file Republicans I talk to say she is a strong candidate that I am beginning to believe it can’t possibly be manufactured sentiment.

There are good reasons why Republicans are taking her very seriously. Hillary seems to have genuinely impressed her Republican Senate colleagues, including McCain, with her careful diligence. In New York she has won over upstate conservatives and has become powerful enough that arch-conservative Rupert Murdoch is throwing a breakfast fund-raiser for her. “We think that she’s been effective on state issues and local issues here in  New York,” he told reporters Wednesday. “She’s been an effective and good senator.”

In Washington, she has been on a careful program of aisle-crossing. She formed ad-hoc alliances with Tom DeLay on foster care, Newt Gingrich on health care, and Bill Frist on improving medical-record technology. Most recently, her cultivation paid off with a valentine from Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham in Time. Her prolonged discipline in office suggests she has the focus to make it through a long and complicated campaign.

Her surprise competency may be doubly disturbing for Republicans who also see she shares her husband’s resilience. Every time they thought they had Bill Clinton cornered, he escaped in better political shape. When Hillary arrived in the Senate in 2000, Republicans were sure her arrogance and pushy liberalism would doom her. They seemed itching to slap her down. “When this Hillary gets to the Senate,” said then Majority Leader Trent Lott, “she will be one of 100, and we won’t let her forget it.” She may lack her husband’s talent on the stump and easy likability, but she has shown she can outmaneuver her detractors.

Hillary is so far ahead of her potential Democratic presidential rivals she looks like the kind of candidate the GOP usually nominates—the “it’s their turn” candidate who has either been through national campaigns or has the star-quality, finances, and a big lead in the polls over their rivals. This doesn’t ensure a seamless coronation (it hasn’t for the GOP in the last three contested nominations either), but it means she can win commitments from key fund-raisers and activists or prevent them from signing up with other candidates. This adds to her air of inevitability. Even those Democratic strategists who are likely to work for her opponents concede her overwhelming advantages.

By now a certain number of readers are hoarse from yelling at the screen. They are already typing pointed denunciations. For some activists, this tale of calculation and maneuvering to the middle represents all that they hate about politics in general and the Democratic Party in particular. They not only curse Hillary but Bill Clinton as the evil progenitor of third-way, accommodationist politics that ruined a once great party. The fact that Republicans approve of what Hillary is doing may very well cause someone to throw their keyboard. Please put the keyboard down.

Republicans have seen this same kind of anger in their own party. They draw an interesting parallel between Democrats today and Republicans during the talk radio revolution of the early 1990s. During that period, conservative Republicans on the radio were saying nearly the identical things about the weakness and go-along attitude of Washington Republicans that liberal Democrats are blogging about their leaders today. The Democratic Party’s gate-crashers of 2008 remind Republicans of Pat Buchanan’s pitchfork brigade in 1992—exciting, passionate, influential, and unsuccessful. George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996 were weak candidates, and the activist base still couldn’t overthrow them. Democratic activists will have a similarly hard time toppling Hillary.

Ultimately insurgent candidacies run out of resources and energy, and establishment front-runners outlast them. Insurgents also tend to be newcomers like McCain or Dean whose attractive authenticity springs from a lack of discipline that causes them to flame out in the crucible of the campaign. Hillary has been through two national races and is battle-tested by the New York press. If it looks like Hillary is going to win, most of the insurgents will fold and join up. (Of course, many conservatives are now cursing having done this with George Bush in 2000.)

It’s also not clear how big the anti-Hillary Democratic group is. Eighty percent of Democrats approve of her, according to one poll, a shocking number given how bleakly they view other party leaders. The 20 percent is going to have to find a challenger they can all agree on. Right now, “Democratic activists are looking for someone out in the wilderness,” as Donna Brazile puts it—a perfect candidate not allied to Washington who has authenticity and a backbone. None of the known Hillary alternatives seems to have the purity necessary for this exacting constituency (I’m not counting Gore). Even if such a candidate could be found, they’re not only going to have to present an attractive alternative vision to Hillary, but they’re going to have to attack her. Their constituency applauds such acts of truth-telling, and Hillary’s momentum will probably demand it. Democratic primary candidates were for a long time too afraid to attack Howard Dean in 2004. Will one of them in 2008 be willing to attack Hillary and risk alienating women voters?

Hillary Clinton is not a lock for the nomination no matter how persuasive the Republican arguments for her are. Democrats pride themselves on their diversity of opinion and ideas. They are wired differently than Republicans, who prefer order and turn-taking. A lot of Democrats are going to bristle against anyone telling them who their candidate is. But if the anti-Hillary Democrats have an alternative, they might want to start working for that candidate now. Republicans already are.