OVERDOGS SEPTEMBER 25, 2013
In the last several weeks, people have started to question the supposed inevitability of Hillary Clinton as the next Democratic presidential nominee. First, Bill de Blasio won the New York mayoral primary, which appeared to signal rising anxiety about income inequality. Peter Beinart, in a widely read essay, wrote that de Blasio's victory heralded the rise of a type of progressivism that marks "a challenge Hillary Clinton should start worrying about now." Larry Summers also bowed out of consideration for Fed chairman amid rising liberal displeasure with his perceived closeness to Wall Street. With the exceptions of Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin, no figure more clearly represented Bill Clinton's economic policies, and yet here was the Democratic Party shunning him.
Then, on Monday, two magazine stories were released that only spurred more questions about Clinton. Alec MacGillis's superb cover story in our current issue uncovered the goings-on at the Clinton Foundation, and raised all sorts of worries about the people the Clintons surround themselves with. Meanwhile, New York magazine reporter Joe Hagan, in an interview with Clinton, was unable to elicit any interesting answers from the potential candidate. This was entirely not Hagan's fault, but it did highlight something odd: namely, that the impetus behind a Clinton candidacy seems to be inertia, as well as a feeling of, "It's her time." Hagan did get one wonderful quote, which, for me, was the most crucial part of the story:
"She's running, but she doesn't know it yet," one [close confidant] put it to me. "It's just like a force of history. It's inexorable, it's gravitational. I think she actually believes she has more say in it than she actually does."
Inspiring stuff, you must admit. And another good reason to wonder about 2016. But while all of these potential problems might register in the minds of elites, they are unlikely to make much difference to voters. Indeed, some commentators seem to be confusing the desirability of a Hillary Clinton candidacy with the political pitfalls a candidacy might face from average Americans.
A case in point is Amy Davidson, who, in an interesting piece on The New Yorker's website, writes of "The Coming Clinton Train Wreck." Davidson discusses the MacGillis and Hagan stories, and takes a few fun swipes at the Clinonites who defend Hillary's tenure as secretary of state with broad generalities (not backed up in the opinion polls I have seen) about how Clinton improved America's image abroad. She also draws a possible connection between Hillary's State Department tenure and the workings of the Clinton Foundation.
In the past few years, Bill and Hillary have both met a lot of powerful people, the same or in the same circles—she projecting present power, he, with his own stature and force, facilitating good but also collecting an awful lot of money. Has anyone made a serious effort to map her travels as Secretary of State against the activities of the Foundation and the donations it's received?
Davidson's piece becomes entirely unconvincing, however, when she switches to what all this means for a Hillary presidential run. She writes:
It would be so important to have a woman as President. But the dread that one feels at the thought of having to listen to one more word about Vince Foster, if Hillary gets the Democratic nomination, is exceeded by the thought of stories on whatever has been going on at the Foundation. She lost in the 2008 primaries to a candidate no one thought had a chance, who was able to move to the front in part because she had taken care to push others out early; we never saw what a Republican attack would have looked like. (There was a peek, around Benghazi, both of the unhinged hate and her own capacity for missteps.) That sort of trouble and noise would not be an unfair revival of ancient Whitewater-Monica-Ken Starr-vast-right-wing-conspiracy history. It doesn't even encompass Bill's social life, or Hillary’s own shortcomings as a campaigner. It has to do with debts Hillary Clinton and her family have taken on, and might be asked, with currency voters give them, to pay back.
I basically feel the same way Davidson does, but I also think her reading of American politics is much too sanguine. As sleazy as some of the activities of the Clinton Foundation might turn out to be, it is highly unlikely they are going to sink Hillary's chances. I don't know exactly what Davidson intends to impart by recalling Benghazi and noting that Clinton never faced GOP attacks. Was the former really such a political screw-up on Clinton's part? Was the latter really going to sink her in a 2008 general election? Obama faced plenty of them.
But the biggest issue here, which comes up frequently in discussions of Hillary 2016, is the way Davidson references the 2008 campaign. Yes, it's true Clinton lost to a man that no one thought had a chance. But people seem to be forgetting how completely fluky that election was. Hillary happened to be running against the best candidate of the past 50-plus years. She happened to be running against the man who ran the smartest campaign of the past 50-plus years. She happened to be running against someone who had gotten on the right side of the one issue (Iraq) that Hillary had bungled. She happened to be running against someone who had a clear, overwhelming advantage with a crucial Democratic Party constituency, without which he would have lost. (My colleague Nate Cohn points out that if Florida and Michigan had not bungled their 2008 primary duties, Hillary would have actually won the popular vote count).
How likely is it that a series of events like this will occur again? (Finding another candidate who can replicate Obama's advantage with a key constituency seems especially unlikely). New York's Jon Chait brings up her support for the war in Iraq, and explains why something similar could haunt Clinton in 2016:
Liberal complaints with their party's failure to sufficiently regulate Wall Street have focused on figures like Larry Summers and Robert Rubin, but these men are proxies for the president who appointed them. Wall Street will be to 2016 what Iraq was to 2008: both a policy liability and a lever for her opponent to wedge open broader doubts about her character, to paint her as a corrupt and feckless insider. Clinton's loyalists say she won't repeat her 2008 errors. But she will have to show she understands just what the analogue is.
I don't know. I hope he is right, but it seems highly unlikely that Wall Street will have the same centrality as Iraq did. For starters, Hillary voted for the Iraq war. That is very different from being married to someone who allowed financial deregulation to occur. Moreover, the Iraq war was undertaken by a Republican president. Financial deregulation has been a bipartisan sport, and, even if it rightfully riles up the left, is unlikely to have the same currency in a partisan primary.
None of this means Hillary Clinton cannot lose. But her current poll position is unprecedented for a non-incumbent vice president, and her establishment support will be near-universal. If there is a formidable challenger, it will have to be someone who is superb at raising money; and someone who takes advantage of the opening Chait and Beinart describe (even if that opening isn't so big); and someone who can minimize Hillary Clinton's demographic advantages. Someone, then, will have to be some woman. And only one comes to mind.