What's Next for Hillary Clinton?

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POLITICS MAY 13, 2008

What's Next for Hillary Clinton?

WASHINGTON--Hillary Clinton still has a lot to win this year, but not the presidency and not the vice presidency.

With Barack Obama having effectively secured the Democratic presidential nomination, it is hard for the Clinton camp to focus on her successes in this contest. But Clinton now possesses strengths she did not enjoy when the campaign began.

She is, more than ever before, her own person, having emerged decisively from the shadow of her husband. Indeed, she did far better when Bill Clinton played a supporting role than when he was out front, notably during the disastrous South Carolina primary. There is now a Hillary Clinton constituency in the Democratic Party distinct from the one the former president built.

Cartoonists and satirists mocked Hillary Clinton's incarnation as a fighter for blue-collar voters. Yet those who know her well think the fighting Hillary is closer to her self-image--as someone who has had to overcome many blows in life--than the inevitable nominee who wove a web of entitlement around herself and ran on experience, much of which was derivative of her husband's.

The Hillary Clinton of the late primaries dispelled this portrait, campaigning more on empathy than resume, and more on the problems of today's economy than on her husband's economic achievements.

And Clinton did her party and Obama a favor by focusing on the Democrats' potential weaknesses among blue-collar whites. This problem is not unique to Obama. Both Al Gore and John Kerry underperformed with these voters, particularly among males. That Obama has been pushed off his oratorical pedestal and encouraged to connect with disaffected whites will save him trouble in the fall. Clinton, widely seen as the champion of older, well-educated feminist women, could be remembered as the politician who brought the party back to its working-class roots.

Yet these achievements have come at a high cost for Clinton, and a $20 million debt may be the least of her troubles. To consolidate her gains while repairing the damage to her standing from a bitter contest, she will have to abandon efforts to block Obama's nomination. She can keep fighting, or she can become a powerful figure in the Democratic Party. She cannot do both.

In particular, where Clinton was once a largely unifying force within her party (that, after all, was why her nomination had been seen as inevitable), she is now far more divisive. Polling by the Pew Research Center, for example, found that while Clinton enjoyed a 67-32 favorable-to-unfavorable ratio among Obama supporters in January, she is now viewed favorably by only 51 percent of Obama supporters and unfavorably by 46 percent.

Especially striking is the ground Clinton has lost among African-Americans, whom she once saw as a bulwark of her candidacy. In August 2007, Pew found that Clinton was viewed favorably by 86 percent of African-Americans, including 44 percent who viewed her very favorably. In its most recent survey, her favorability rating among African-Americans was down to 56 percent, including only 22 percent who viewed her very favorably.

For both Clintons, one of the most painful aspects of this campaign has been their alienation from so many black voters. Any moves that risk further divisions in the Democratic Party -- Hillary Clinton's comment last week about Obama's weakness among voters who are "hard-working" and "white" didn't help--will aggravate a problem she wants to go away.

So would an orchestrated campaign by Clinton supporters to push Obama hard to make her the vice presidential nominee. An aggressive Clinton for vice president campaign would simply reopen fights that are just ending and offer Obama two bad choices: either to look weak by capitulating to pressure from the defeated wing of the party, or to look spiteful by refusing to take Clinton on.

On the other hand, choosing a Clinton supporter as a running mate--the obvious possibilities are Govs. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Ted Strickland of Ohio or Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana--could serve Obama's interest while assuaging a certain sourness that lingers in the Clinton camp.

But the best antidote to this melancholy is for her supporters to see that the Hillary Clinton who has emerged from these primaries is a stronger and more independent figure than the candidate who once hoped she could parlay the past into the White House. Her future depends on discovering a new role, even if it is not the one she had originally hoped to play.

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

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