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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

There seem to be two fundamental explanations as to why Hillary Clinton continues to campaign so vigorously while her chances of securing the nomination are virtually nil. The first is that she knows that this remains her last and best chance to win the Presidency. The second is that she knows she is not going to win, but is trying to undermine Brack Obama in order to ensure that he loses the election against John McCain — and that she’ll be able to step in come 2012.

I very much side with the former explanation. For one thing, as hard as she as fought for the nomination — and as dirty as some would say she has played — there is a pretty clear line in the sand between doing everything in your power to win in 2008 and actually trying to ensure the defeat of your rival to set yourself up for 2012. The former is Clintonian; the latter is Nixonian and conspiratorial. But the more fundamental reason is this: I don’t think there’s any reason to expect that Hillary Clinton would be especially viable in 2012. In fact, I can think of five reasons why she would not be:

1. She’ll get blamed if Obama loses (everyone will). It is hard to imagine a more frustrating set of circumstances for the Democrats. Firstly, the sitting Vice President wins the popular vote, but loses a disputed electoral vote at a time of peace and prosperity. Then, the Democrats are unable to defeat a President whose disapproval scores are in the high 40s and low 50s at the time of the election. And finally, the Democrats are unable to win an election against a mediocre Republican nominee in spite of a 10-point advantage in party identification and the presence of both a war and a recession, each of which are blamed on their opponents.

If Barack Obama loses the election, there will be a lot of blame to go around. And some if it, however fairly, will fall at the feet of the Clintons. This would be particularly the case if Clinton actually were trying to undermine the nominee and there was the sense that Clinton had not supported him (to reiterate, I think it’s somewhere between premature and ridiculous to assert that this is their angle).

You think black voters, for instance, are going to go running back into the arms of the Clintons? One thing that’s been forgotten is that black voters did not reflexively gravitate toward Barack Obama from the outset. Instead, Clinton began the cycle with something like a 60/40 edge among them. But Clinton lost their votes every bit as much as Obama won them. And there is one and only one surefire way for them to reconcile that rift: for the Clintons to enthusiastically support Barack Obama, and for him to become the 44th President of the United States. I would guess that, if Obama loses the election and the combatants for the 2012 nomination are Hillary Clinton and Mark Warner, Warner would have 70 percent of the black community’s support by Labor Day.

2. Read My Lips: No New Rationale. The handful of candidates that have come back from a previous defeat to win the Presidency — and essentially all of them were Republicans, not Democrats — invariably had something fundamentally different about the electoral landscape working for them the second time around. Richard Nixon benefited from the backlash to the counterculture (and the absence of a Democratic nominee as compelling as John F. Kennedy). Ronald Reagan no longer had the chore of campaigning against his own party’s incumbent President. George H.W. Bush had spent eight years in the Vice President’s chair under an exceptionally popular president (as had Al Gore in his losing effort).

It is hard to think of an analogous condition emerging for Hillary Clinton between now and the next election. After all, while this is Hillary Clinton’s first attempt at the Presidency, she has both the burden and the blessing of her husband’s legacy. Clinton has proudly run on that legacy, and she has made an awfully big deal of her experience for a candidate who is relatively lacking in it. The implicit case being made is the one for a third Clinton term rather than a first Hillary term. If (when) she is finally defeated by Barack Obama, there will be the sense that the Clintonian arc has finally run its course.

When Clinton’s gas tax gambit failed to achieve its intended results in North Carolina and Indiana, that may have been as clear a signal as we were going to get that the Clinton brand of politics is a step too slow for the Internet age. That does not mean that Barack Obama’s new way will necessarily become the dominant technology. He could well turn out to be the Betamax to Mark Warner’s VHS. But Clinton will, at the very least, have to reinvent and rebrand herself, lest she become today’s Blockbuster Video.

I can think of two ways that Clinton might attempt this. The first would be to figuratively, and perhaps even literally, divorce herself from her husband. Rodham for president in oh-twelve. One cannot begin to contemplate the probability of this, although the psychodrama of it all would compel the national spotlight. The second way would be for her to emerge as a real champion of the Democratic cause in the Senate. This would require focus and hard work — two things that Clinton is certainly capable of (although Carl Bernstein thinks that she is indifferent at best about this prospect).

But it would also require the support of senior leadership within the party. For whatever happens to Barack Obama, the 111th Congress is likely to be a fairly happy place for a Democrat to be. They will, in all likelihood, have expanded their majority, perhaps even to a filibuster-proof margin in the Senate. They will benefit from an unpopular war and a sluggish economy. They would likely be able to accomplish more under a President McCain than under a President Bush, for the simple fact that McCain still has some political capital left to lose. There is no reason to believe that the Senate Democrats would roll over and play dead for Hillary Clinton, particularly when:

3. She has burned too many bridges within the party leadership. If Clinton’s goal is to become the new Ted Kennedy, that is harder to accomplish when Ted Kennedy is still alive and kicking, and happens to hate your guts. Calling Bill Richardson ‘Judas’, or saying that that John Kerry is ‘dead to us’: these are not the sort of actions that a political franchise takes when it is concerned about its long-term future. Clinton’s comments to USA Today, which triggered the Kennedy outburst, may ultimately be remembered as the moment that her campaign, having committed the crime, jumped into the White Ford Bronco and tried to make the best of it. If superdelegates are still around in 2012, she is not likely to have the head start with them that she did in this cycle.

4. She’s a creature of the partisan environment. If you’re a Democrat who buys that Barack Obama is electorally vulnerable, there are two subtexts you can read into that. The first is approximately this:

“This is the most favorable landscape that the Democrats have had in years! We can’t afford to screw this up!”

The second, expressed to some extent in this John Judis article, is really just the opposite:

“This is the most favorable landscape that the Democrats have had in years! We can’t afford to miss the opportunity to nominate some who [politically, racially] represents the party as we’ve always wanted it to be!”.

But whichever framing you prefer, this argument is really more salient to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. The reason is that while Obama has a fighting chance against McCain among independent voters, Clinton routinely loses that category, and often by large margins (although her numbers have improved recently). And she wins few friends among Republicans. Mathematically, the only way that such a candidate can win an election is if her party has a substantial edge in partisan identification — which, as it happens, the Democrats presently do. But if you believe in the median voter theorem (and I largely do), that edge may not be very long lasting. Instead, the Republicans will tact to the left, giving up some ground on policy, but winning back some support. There will be some legislative victories for the Democrats, but if the Republicans repair their image in the process, there will no longer be the raison d’être for a candidate whose whole appeal is in her refusal to compromise.

5. The Reader’s Digest Problem. I have a friend — a Clinton supporter, actually — who joked to me that Barack Obama shouldn’t worry about his current polling, because by the time November rolls around, half of John McCain’s supporters will be dead. Gallows humor aside, Hillary Clinton has a little bit of this problem as well. And I do not think it is merely a matter of her supporters tending to be older than Barack Obama’s. Obama’s argument is at its core a generational argument, and Clinton is that the waning edge of that generation gap. I would imagine that a fair amount of her support comes from people who became wealthy during the Clinton era, or got married and started a family during the Clinton era, or migrated to this country during the Clinton era. As those experiences fade from memory, so will some of her support.

If Barack Obama becomes the nominee and loses, there will be good arguments for giving him another try in 2016 or 2020. He will certainly be young enough, he will magically have solved his experience problem, and he will benefit from a younger generation tends to be both more racially tolerant and more racially diverse. For Clinton, however, there is no day better than today.

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