Advancing a Free Society

An Uphill Or Downhill Run For Hillary?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Once upon a time, the nation’s capital was synonymous with a special form of incompetence having nothing to do with politics – a cellar-dwelling baseball existence best captured by sportswriter Charles Dryden: “Washington – first in war, first in peace, last in the American League”.

That’s no longer the case. The current Washington franchise – that would be the Nationals, nee the Montreal Expos (Washington’s two previous franchises, both named the Senators, fled D.C. for the greener pastures of Minnesota and Texas) – resides in the National League. Moreover, the “Nats” are a consensus choice to make this fall’s World Series.

That said, the Washington Nationals aren’t the only prohibitive favorite found inside the beltway. Residing about 20 minutes from the ballpark is Hillary Clinton, the trendy choice these days to be the Democratic nominee in 2016 and America’s 45th president.

At least, that’s what the polls tell us. One survey shows Mrs. Clinton dominating both Republicans and her fellow Democrats in hypothetical 2016 matchups. Another poll has Florida voters preferring her to native sons Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

Add to those numbers: the chattering class’s clamoring for a Hillary run.

Paul Begala, the Democratic consultant who helped engineer Bill Clinton’s win in 1992, “hopes and prays” for a Clinton candidacy. Kathleen Parker, a Washington Postcolumnist, believes it’s nothing less than Hillary’s duty to run: “The calculus comes down to this: She has been working toward this moment essentially all her life, diligently clearing away the brush blocking her path. The zeitgeist is ready for a woman president. Most important, she can win – and few think the country would be worse for it.”

About being a president-in-waiting this early in the selection process: it’s both a blessing and a curse for a Democratic frontrunner. Al Gore led wire to wire in 2000. On the other hand, Mario Cuomo, Gary Hart, Ted Kennedy and Edmund Muskie are examples of early odds-on-favorites who didn’t work out (some decided not to run, others did and flamed out). And there’s Mrs. Clinton’s experience in 2008 – starting out with a big advantage, only to be passed by Barack Obama.

Though it’s a long way to 2016, here are four reasons why Clinton inaugural planning may be premature:

1)  Despite the Conventional Wisdom, She’s Unconventional. Republicans choose their presidential nominee in an orderly fashion: the prize goes to the previous runner-up. It’s true of Mitt Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. But not so, for Democrats. Since 1972, six of the Democrats’ eight nominees had never sought national office before. Democrats like novelty; they venerate youth. And here, as David Frum points out, Mrs. Clinton has a problem. She’s 14 years older than Obama; neither party has gone with a nominee that much older than his or her predecessor. Turning 69 in 2016, she’ll be 24 years older than was her husband at the time of his acceptance speech in the summer of 1992 – seeking a Democratic nomination won only once, since 1972, by a candidate in his or her 60’s (John Kerry, age 60 in 2004). Presumably tanned, rested and ready by 2016, would Hillary be .  . . too old?

2)  Lean Left, Lean Right, Lean In? Presidential candidates succeed by finding their niche. Barack Obama neatly stepped into the disgruntled progressive void; Bill Clinton cloaked himself in centrism. The Hillary campaign of 2008 struggled as to where and how to position its candidate – as Democratic strategist Bob Shrum noted, making the fatal mistake of coming across, in a change election, as an establishment candidate “whose sell-by-date has passed”. How does Hillary avoid that? Perhaps she embraces “lean in” – the concept of women woefully underrepresented in leadership positions – and runs as the political answer to Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. But that invites a very complicated discussion about Hillary Clinton as a role model. And that leads us to . . .

3) Buy One, Get One Free – Again? In 2016, as in 2008, the elephant in the room would be Bill Clinton. Does he overshadow his wife’s candidacy, as he did at times in the previous run (you might recall the former president whining about being the victim of racial politics)? Does his income from speaking gigs (here’s an example of how her husband’s finances came into play in 2008) remind voters of the Clintons’ pliant ethics? And there’s the complicated arrangement that is the Clintons’ marriage (which scholars are still trying to decipher).

4) Her Story Meets History. Let’s assume Hillary breezes past a weak Democratic field. As the party’s first woman nominee, she would be looking to achieve another historical first: a non-incumbent Democrat succeeding a Democratic administration. It didn’t work in 2000 and 1920, at the end of two-term Democratic presidencies. It didn’t work in 1968 or 1952 – the end of hybrid Democratic administrations. With the exception of the first Bush administration, the nation has swapped out partisan control of the White House every eight years, going back to 1980. Could Hillary reverse that pattern? That’s a tall order in what could turn in yet another change election.

Bottom line: baseball pennants aren’t won in April; presidential elections aren’t decided three years ahead of their actual vote.


Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen