What Should Democrats--and the Country--Do?


Despite the breathless media reports about every jot and tittle of the Democratic contest for President, not all that much has changed in the last year. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) has consistently been the frontrunner in national surveys, sometimes by narrow spreads and frequently by sizeable margins. So far she has weathered the entry of Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), a far more charismatic and exciting candidate, and she has held off any sizeable gains by the other two major contenders, former Senator John Edwards (D-NC) and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico (D-NM).

The main stumbling block for Clinton has been Iowa, where she continues to trail in the trial heats for the first caucus. But no one else is so well positioned to survive an initial defeat. Arguably, her strongest potential opponents, moderates Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) and former Governor Mark Warner (D-VA), decided against running, and the other formidable possible candidate, former Vice President Al Gore, is almost certainly not going to run. The other announced Democratic candidates show little sign of breaking out of the pack.

So it’s smooth sailing for Hillary, right? No one questions her intelligence, abilities, policy aptitude, and experience (hey, this would be her third term!) And thanks to the deep unpopularity of President Bush and the Iraq War, won’t any Democrat be favored in 2008? How can the Democrats blow this election, with all their built-in advantages?

Well, the sailing is going to get rough, and those built-in advantages are somewhat illusory. But everything depends on whether Democrats–and the country in general–consider the big picture prior to voting in January and then November. It’s anybody’s guess whether they will.

The Crystal Ball is the first to admit that Clinton is a substantial, maybe heavy early favorite for the nomination. Hillary has become the “woman candidate” in a party strongly influenced by women in its voting base (if not in public office). Her first-tier opponents are also hobbled in various ways. The inexperienced Obama is a relative novice at politics, and many Democrats–including African-American Dems–are worried that America isn’t “ready” for a black President. (Why America would be ready for a woman and not an African American is a mystery to the Crystal Ball.) Edwards was an unimpressive Senator and nominee for Vice President in 2004 who has been unable to shake his image as a “pretty boy.” Richardson has a better resume than all his rivals put together, but this unpolished performer has been unable to break through in fundraising or the debates.

Moreover, the yearning among the public for the end of President Bush’s reign is palpable, and it may simply be impossible to stop any Democratic ticket in November 2008. Put aside Democratic antipathy toward Bush; most Independents and many Republicans aren’t listening to Bush anymore, and that’s a big problem for him and his party. As political scientist Richard Neustadt wrote in 1960, the essential presidential power is “the power to persuade.” A Chief Executive has no chance to persuade if few are paying attention. A President’s party has little chance to win if the public is so soured on an administration that it seeks mainly to punish the incumbent in an election. To top it off, the GOP electorate appears deeply divided among four major candidates (Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson) and generally dissatisfied and unenthusiastic about their choices–another effect of the “Bush depression” among Republicans.

Yet Hillary Clinton has her own unique set of difficulties, and neither her party nor the general electorate has focused on them in a comprehensive way. Let’s take a look:

  • There is something about Hillary–the person, not the politician–that upsets and repels tens of millions of Americans. Fairly or not, she is seen as cold, calculating, and ruthless, an off-putting combination of characteristics. Is some of this sexist? Regrettably, you bet it is. We laugh whenever we hear Senator Clinton derided as overly ambitious. Which of her male rivals would not eagerly walk over both grandmothers laid end to end in order to make their way into the White House? Stomach-turning ambition is in the nature of the political beast. But with Mrs. Clinton, the public reaction is based on far more than this one quality. For example, almost every voter now has heard something about her leading role in covering up for her husband’s serial infidelities over the decades. This is an unusual role for a spouse, even in the twisted world of politics. Most normal people cannot fathom it, except in the context of a supposed “corrupt bargain” between two power-hungry individuals.
  • The result of the voters’ harsh personal evaluation of Mrs. Clinton is obvious. In many surveys, Clinton runs 3-5 percentage points worse than the other widely known Democratic candidates, Obama and Gore, when matched up against the best-known Republican presidential candidates for November 2008. Incredibly, close to half of adult Americans already say they have an “unfavorable” opinion of her, and 43-46 percent of Americans say that they would not even consider voting for her–an extraordinarily high proportion this early in a campaign that leaves little room for error later on. (A few sample polls appear below.) Independents, moderates and swing voters are concentrated in this anti-Clinton group, not just Republicans. Again, maybe the toxic combination of Bush and Iraq will guarantee any Democrat’s triumph, but should the GOP’s toxicity lessen (perhaps by means of troop withdrawals by election day), Democrats will perhaps be taking an unnecessary chance of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory with Clinton as their standard-bearer.
ABC News Poll – April 18, 2007
Definitely would not support:
Clinton 45%
Obama 36
Edwards 35
ABC News Poll – April 18, 2007
Definitely would not support (inds. only):
Clinton 45%
Obama 29
Edwards 39
Gallup Poll – May 24, 2007
Favorable/unfavorable (all adults):
Clinton 53% / 45%
Obama 55 / 20
Edwards 56 / 24
Gallup/USA Today Poll – June 5, 2007
Favorable/Unfavorable (all adults):
Clinton 46% / 50%
Obama 53 / 25
Edwards 44 / 32
  • Compared to other candidates about whom the public knows much less, Clinton will have to live with the current public perceptions of her, for the most part. Too much water has gone under the bridge and over the dam since the Clintons burst on the national scene in 1992. Mrs. Clinton likes to say that she is the most famous person nobody knows, but in fact, most Americans think they have her number. Voters are uninformed about the details of politics and policy, but as the great political scientist V.O. Key oncewrote, “Voters are not fools.” The final several percent of swing voters needed to get Hillary Clinton over the top in the general election will vote for her only with the greatest reluctance, more as a way to stop a Republican than as an endorsement of her. That is a shaky way to start a Presidency.
  • Let’s suppose Mrs. Clinton wins in November 2008. Democrats would have to live with the consequences. There is simply no question that Senator Clinton would be the third deeply polarizing President in a row, following her husband’s divisive and partially wasted tenure and George W. Bush’s deeply disappointing turn at bat. We bet that she would have a short honeymoon and would be unable to convince her millions of critics and detractors that she had changed–or was different than they long ago concluded she was. At a time when the nation could use a unifier and a healer–to the extent that any President can perform those roles–partisan warfare would be at fever pitch from Day One.
  • Republicans hope that Mrs. Clinton is the nominee because they believe she may be the easiest to beat. Circumstances may prove them right or wrong, but there is another reason why they should root for her. The inevitable controversies of the Presidency would erode her shaky support among swing voters faster than is usually the case. The midterm election of 2010 may not be the fiasco for Democrats that 1994 was-there were few historical parallels for Bill Clinton’s electoral disaster in his first term-yet the GOP would almost certainly make a good start on the comeback trail for control of Congress, governorships, and the state legislatures (in the all-important redistricting election that will determine much of the legislative line-drawing for a full decade). Granted, it is virtually impossible to get partisans to think about their long-term interests, but in this respect, Democrats would probably pay a sizeable price throughout the 2010s for a Clinton victory in 2008.
  • Democrats (and some Independents) have fallen back in love with Bill Clinton, and this has caused a case of mass amnesia about his (and her) many scandals from the 1990s. The muted reactions to the two new books on Hillary Clinton by Carl Bernstein and Jeff Gerth & Don Van Natta, Jr. suggest that voters have already absorbed the embarrassing fundamentals and factored the scandals into their fixed perceptions of the Clintons. But do leopards change their spots? Suppose the news media choose to break more recent (post-January 20, 2001) information about the former President? How much additional tolerance for a continuation of the tired Clinton soap opera is there in the American public? If this happens, Democrats will suffer–whether the revelations come before the nomination is decided or after the nominee (if Mrs. Clinton) is chosen. As First Gentleman, Bill Clinton will also be reasonably subject to the highest level of scrutiny for four or eight more years. Would the public ignore additional indiscretions as more of the same, or recoil anew and punish Democrats at the polls in future elections? One can argue this either way, though we think the latter outcome is much more likely.

Just this week, the Clinton campaign unveiled its official campaign song, Celine Dion’s “You and I.” (The popular chanteuse is French Canadian, so what better way for Hillary to win over conservatives and Independents in the South and heartland?) The Crystal Ball is not primarily a pop culture repository, but we are reminded of an earlier single by Dion: 1996’s adult contemporary chart-topping, “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now.” With lines like: But you were history with the slamming of the door / And I made myself so strong again somehow / And I never wasted any of my time on you since then, perhaps many voters have moved beyond the sour taste left by the Clinton shenanigans of the 1990s. But with another Clinton as party nominee or President, how quickly would they begin to think: It’s so hard to resist / And it’s all coming back to me / I can barely recall / But it’s all coming back to me now?

So much for the partisan considerations. Let’s finish up this essay by broadening our critique, and offering a point that ought to concern all Americans. Every four years, observers pronounce the presidential contenders to be a “weak field,” and that is as unfair as it is predictable.

A much more reasonable criticism is directly related to the dominating presence of Hillary Clinton in this election cycle. The population of the United States now exceeds 300 million, and the talent pool of the world’s only superpower is deep and rich. How is it that the country is on the verge of filling its highest office for the sixth consecutive term from one of two families? That every President from 1989 to 2017 may be a Bush or a Clinton is a national disgrace. What has happened to the American Republic? How does it differ from a banana republic–where a couple of dominant families often run everything for generations? Have we driven the vast majority of the potentially best Presidents out of the contest because of the high personal and professional costs of running for office? Are we the voters responsible because we are too lazy to go beyond the simplistic attractions of familiarity and high name identification? Or, most disturbing of all, has our political system become ossified, so that we are too fearful of change to seek out the most outstanding leaders among us for the toughest job in the world?

We don’t pretend to have the answers. But we are shocked and dismayed that more people aren’t even bothering to ask the questions.