The Hillary juggernaut

The rank and file may be against her, but numbers (and dollars) don't lie. Why Clinton may already be unstoppable.

Topics: 2008 Elections, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democratic Party,

The Hillary juggernaut

In the most telling bipartisan effort to consign George W. Bush to irrelevancy, the 2008 presidential race has already begun — six months earlier than any comparable contest in modern history. The Republicans, who otherwise might have been expected to be still basking in Bush’s reelection, conducted White House auditions in Memphis, Tenn., earlier this month, complete with a presidential preference straw poll. The Democrats do not have anything that formal on the party’s immediate agenda, but virtually every week a potential 2008 contender concocts an excuse to visit the first primary state, including New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who dropped by New Hampshire last weekend.

Hillary Clinton, who hovers over the presidential field like the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, can afford to argue, as she does at private fund-raisers, that this fast-forward obsession with 2008 is an unnecessary distraction from the immediate task of recapturing Congress. Other would-be Democratic presidents — including current flavor-of-the-month former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner — do not have Hillary’s luxury of dynamic inaction. For them, initial decisions have to be made about campaign strategy, fundraising, staffing and key issues well before the November congressional elections.

This is why one of the major occupations of Democratic consultants and party insiders these days is writing memos about the probable rigors and potential rewards of the 2008 race. After a series of not-for-quotation conversations with prominent members of the Democratic memo-writing class, I have a sense of what the White House dreamers have been hearing, especially about running against Hillary. In an effort to convey what has been happening behind the scenes, I have distilled this wisdom (conventional and otherwise) into the following memo to an imaginary Democratic presidential possibility with the fine old political name of John P. Wintergreen:


From: Walter Shapiro
Subject: Running to Win in 2008

Let’s not be under any illusions here. If you get into the presidential race (and you have repeatedly told me that you’re ready to spend the next two years getting four hours sleep per night in Holiday Inns), you have to assume that you’re going up against Hillary, since I put the chances of her running at 80 percent. If she somehow bows out at the last moment like Mario Cuomo in 1991, you can consider yourself the luckiest border-state governor in America.

But otherwise, you will face in Hillary the most formidable presidential front-runner in modern political history. (And, yes, I am counting George W. Bush in 2000.) Here are 10 reasons why the junior senator from New York will be a daunting foe:

1) Universal name recognition. (In contrast, JPW, only 3 percent of likely Democratic primary voters know that you were originally the president in the Gershwin classic “Of Thee I Sing.”)

2) Her capacity to raise $100 million without once working late into the night cold-calling strangers to beg and grovel for money.

3) The ability to dominate the free media. Hillary will never make a public appearance in this campaign without being tracked by 100 reporters. (In contrast, JPW, imagine how much coverage you will get for your first press conference bragging about your gubernatorial record and the “Tennetucky Miracle.”)

4) Her emotional support from a significant percentage of women voters out to make history.

5) Nostalgia for the Clinton era of peace and prosperity in the 1990s.

6) Continuing Democratic resentment over impeachment.

7) Hillary’s over-cautious political style that avoids risk and, quite likely, deliberate mistakes.

8) The most potent candidate surrogate in political history in the form of Bill Clinton.

9) The ability of the Clinton name and legacy to attract 75 percent of the African-American vote and a large slice of the Hispanic vote.

10) At least a half-dozen candidates (including JPW) who will divide the anti-Hillary Democrats, so that she could win major primaries with just her hardcore base of, say, 35 percent of the vote.

This is obviously not a race for the fainthearted. But there is a ray of hope — and, no, I am not talking about the “Tennetucky Miracle.”

No presidential favorite in the history of contested primaries has ever had the nomination handed to him by acclamation. For every Bush in 2000, there is always a John McCain to emerge out of nowhere to add drama and uncertainty to the horse race. The press has a vested interest in a hard-fought contest — and Democrats, in particular, like being given more of a choice than voters in, say, North Korea. So Hillary will have, at minimum, one serious challenger and a few nail-bitingly anxious weeks on the road to the convention. Your goal, JPW, is, of course, to be the dragon-slayer who stops her.

The Non-Hillary Field: Start with Mark Warner and 2004 V.P. candidate John Edwards, who are unabashedly running. Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh has privately put his own odds at 90 percent, and the latest word from Iowa is that Gov. Tom Vilsack is similarly poised to run. Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold — who wins headlines every other week with an anti-Bush gambit like a censure resolution — has to be counted among the likeliest contenders. And finally, Sen. Joe Biden, the Delaware motor-mouth who performed so garrulously during the Alito confirmation hearings, keeps insisting that he’s definitely running.

Depending on whom you talk to, John Kerry is either running or merely keeping his options open for a mid-2007 decision by maintaining his visibility and e-mail list. (An e-mail appeal from Kerry raised over $100,000 for Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran running for the House in Illinois.) Al Gore represents another puzzle; his wife, Tipper, is said to be definitely opposed, while his politically active daughter Karenna seems severely tempted. Bill Richardson is seriously mulling his chances, while former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle is also playing the maybe game. And don’t forget former Gen. Wesley Clark, who has never lacked ambition or self-confidence.

How to Think About the Field: Like old-fashioned slot machines, the final round of most presidential races comes down to three possibilities. (Granted, there have been a number of past years when pushing the lever produced three Democratic lemons.) The conventional method is to group the contenders in starkly different terms. There would be the left-wing political purist option, which would right now go to Feingold, though Gore and even Kerry could make claims based on the fervor of their antiwar rhetoric. Hillary, of course, would have an Heiress Apparent slot of her own. And the final position would belong to the winner of the Democratic Electability Bake-off: Warner, Edwards and Bayh are all vying for that honor. Yes, JPW, you’re in this final mix with your landslide border-state reelection victory and, yes, the “Tennetucky Miracle.”

But there is another way to slice and dice the 2008 wannabes. And that is to assume that the race will ultimately come down to Hillary, one intriguing fresh face (Warner, Bayh, Feingold, JPW, etc.) and one sadder-but-wiser repeat candidate (Gore, Kerry, Edwards, Clark or even Biden). The importance of these slots is to figure out who is vying against whom for supporters. Are Feingold and Warner battling to be the candidate of the blog-based “netroots”? Or is Warner, say, locked in a battle of Southern pragmatists with Edwards?

Money: To compete in 2008, a Democrat has to raise between $30 million and $40 million by the end of 2007. This is the price of admission, no exceptions. To think otherwise puts you in the 2004 Dennis Kucinich protest-candidate mold. JPW, this means that you need 500 to 700 fundraisers who can deliver (not merely promise) $50,000 to $70,000 each. With the maximum legal contribution a little more than $2,000 (the exact number depends on an inflation adjustment), that’s heavy lifting.

In the old days, a candidate might bet it all on Iowa and New Hampshire, knowing that he could only raise more money if he won. Now merely to get to that early stage, you will need your $30 million to $40 million. And you will need it shockingly early in the cycle. In the third quarter of 2003 (the political equivalent of the summer of 2007), most Democratic presidential contenders began spending more money than they took in. With everything speeded up this time, candidates may begin heavy spending by the spring of next year. These financial realities are why most 2008 contenders have to make their am-I-really-in decisions over the next six months.

Yes, Howard Dean and then John Kerry permanently upended the traditional rules of campaign fundraising by harnessing the Internet in 2003 and 2004. But Dean was the anti-Iraq war candidate and Kerry was the de facto nominee against Bush. You don’t raise big money on the Internet merely by putting up a Web site complete with a blog. To steal a song title from “Gypsy” — that legendary 1950s musical about burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee — “You Got to Have a Gimmick.” Right now, it is easy to see how a cause-oriented candidate like Feingold would appeal to the online community, although I would hate to have to develop an Internet strategy for a seemingly bland contender like Biden or Vilsack.

The Calendar: Leave it to the Democrats to take an irrational political schedule and cleverly come up with a way to make it worse. The Democratic National Committee is poised to approve a scheme to add two caucuses between the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and the opening-gun New Hampshire primary. The underlying notion is to add diversity to a process dominated by Iowa and New Hampshire, two states not known for their vibrant minority communities.

These two new caucuses would be in a Southern state (South Carolina, with its large African-American vote, is the current favorite) and a Western state with a significant Hispanic population (Nevada and Colorado are the leading contenders). But New Hampshire threatens to move its primary to late 2007, if necessary, to maintain its traditional supremacy — and about the only certainty regarding the calendar is that it is going to be chockablock with early contests. All this, unfortunately, plays to Hillary’s advantage, since New Hampshire is the one state with a proven anti-royalist tradition in presidential politics. (This is the place where McCain beat Bush in 2000 by 20 percentage points in a dramatic manifestation of this anti-front-runner sentiment.)

Here’s one plausible scenario under which the calendar works to Hillary’s advantage. Begin on a Monday in January with the Iowa caucuses that presumably would go to Vilsack, the home-state hero, with Hillary running second. Assume the following Saturday there is a caucus in Nevada with the results split between Richardson (the only Hispanic in the race) and Hillary. Meanwhile, the same day South Carolina divides its caucus votes between Hillary (again!) and Edwards, who won the state in 2004. Three days later, it’s on to New Hampshire where another candidate (say, Feingold) runs neck-and-neck with Hillary. At that point in the process, virtually every other Democratic contender is broke and Hillary, who has never definitively triumphed anywhere, is now in a position to sweep the board.

A Final Word: I never promised you a rose garden, especially not the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But nothing in politics is foreordained — not even Hillary’s nomination. Many things could trip her up: her hawkish views on foreign policy; a sense that she is by far the least electable Democrat; new revelations about Bill’s extracurricular activities; a certain “no questions, please, I’m the front-runner” arrogance on the stump; or even a growing boredom with all things Clinton. But while we would all love to see Wintergreen in the White House, make no mistake, JPW, getting the Democratic nomination will require surviving one of the most daunting obstacle courses in modern political history.

Walter Shapiro is Salon's Washington bureau chief. A complete listing of his articles is here.

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