The case against Hillary

An admirer explains: A campaign based on her inevitability and entitlement would crash and burn like it did in 2008

Published December 4, 2012 12:00PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Mary Calvert)
(Reuters/Mary Calvert)

As November's election results sink in and the size of President Obama's victory becomes clearer – he won 332 electoral votes and more than 51 percent of the popular vote -- Democrats are uncharacteristically giddy about 2016. Not only is demography on the party's side, with the share of the young, female and non-white vote rising almost every year, but destiny seems to be, too. Our first black president could be succeeded by our first female president, since the party's star, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, would immediately become the front-runner for the nomination, and for election, if she decides to run.

I supported Hillary Clinton in 2008. Smarter people than I believe she will run in 2016, despite her protests, and I mostly hope she does. Chances are I would support her again. There is no other strong certain candidate in the field. Vice President Biden and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo are likely to stay out of the race if she runs. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley probably would, or should, too. He doesn't have the stature to successfully challenge her. And there's no obvious liberal or progressive star to date. Talk about a run by, say, Massachusetts Sen.-elect Elizabeth Warren seems premature to me, as much as I admire her: Let's give her a little time in the Senate to make a difference before pushing her onto the national stage. Of course, it's still quite early, and an inspiring figure may well emerge who could give Clinton an energetic run from the left. Almost nobody was betting on Sen. Barack Obama on Dec. 4, 2005. So we'll see.

I understand why some Democrats are giddy over the chance of a Clinton candidacy; I've gotten caught up in it occasionally, too. She's the most popular political figure in the country, on either side of the aisle. And if Obama could pass her the baton in 2016, we'd get a chance at a 21stcentury New Deal, a 12- to 16-year Democratic era (maybe even more) that could eventually rival Franklin Delano Roosevelt's in accomplishments. It would be powered by an electorate that polls say is more liberal than at any time in modern history, with an appetite for activist domestic government.

But it's not just those with a bent for activist domestic government who see the thrill of a Hillary race. The activist national security wing of the Democratic Party seems high on a Hillary run, too. The New Yorker's David Remnick took their temperature at big donor Haim Saban's annual forum over the weekend, and found participants swooning over Hillary 2016. "Everyone had a theory of which they were one hundred percent certain. There wasn’t much doubt about the ultimate direction. 2007-8 was but a memory and 2016 was within sight. She’s running," Remnick wrote Monday. He described a fawning video tribute to Clinton that summed up the case for her 2016 candidacy:

The film was like an international endorsement four years in advance of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. The tone was so reverential that it resembled the sort of film that the Central Committee of the Communist Party might have produced for Leonid Brezhnev’s retirement party if Leonid Brezhnev would only have retired and the Soviets had been in possession of advanced video technology. After it was over there was a separate video from the President. Looking straight into the camera, Obama kvelled at length: “You’ve been at my side at some of the most important moments of my administration.”

Remnick's piece, along with the fawning Saban tribute video (it's the second one on this page) gave me pause about a Clinton candidacy, for several reasons. If Clinton is serious about not running, she should keep copies of the video handy to cheer her up in case she ever doubts her legacy or gets bored. (I'd maybe edit out the Henry Kissinger parts, but that's just me.) But if she's serious about running, she should burn the video and never watch it again. It's an artifact of our self-congratulatory global national security and finance elite, and it belongs in a time capsule. If it were shared widely, it could cost her as many votes as it wins her. And trust me: Bruno Mars' "Just the Way You Are" is not going to wear well over the years to come.

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Hillary Clinton herself knows this, but it's worth stating anyway: She'd be facing an election in 2016, not a coronation. It's possible, even likely, that by 2016 the electorate will be restive, and ready for more change than a pillar of the Obama administration could provide. While respecting the man she served for four years (and presumably hoping to benefit from his colossal political infrastructure), she would have to make her candidacy a bold step forward, not merely more of the same.

The left wing of the Democratic Party, in particular, has gotten stronger since 2010. After stifling the impulse that has sometimes doomed the left – to primary a Democratic president out of disappointment he wasn't more progressive – they did what they needed to do instead: They helped elect a more progressive Congress. In an open field with no incumbent, and a popular V.P. who nonetheless isn't a shoo-in for the nomination, progressives might think it's time to run a national campaign from the left, particularly on issues of national security. And it might indeed be time for a challenge to the bipartisan national security consensus that's hardened since 9/11, as exemplified by the centrist-liberal crowd that feted Clinton at the Saban forum. It would be hard for that campaign to be Hillary Clinton's.

Hard, though not impossible. If she runs Clinton has sufficient liberal bona fides to make it tough for a challenger to pull together a winning coalition from her left. She can make it tougher still by avoiding her big 2008 mistake: running as the inevitable front-runner, representing essentially a third term for a popular Democrat – this time Obama, not her husband. She will need to find an independent rationale for her candidacy that makes her the best choice for 2016, not for 2000 or 2008.

Clinton's 2008 campaign offers mostly negative lessons, but they're worth learning. It would be hard to repeat the dire mistake of choosing a centrist, corporate campaign strategist like Mark Penn. But count on it: There will be someone else advising Clinton to don the inevitability cloak and become the champion of the Obama era political status quo (assuming things go well in the months and years to come).  She's got to figure out a way to avoid that, while also drawing on the capital she's acquired as a loyal partner to the president and servant of the country.

One Penn mistake is easy to avoid. He advised Clinton to minimize the historic nature of her bid to be our first female president, and to instead maximize her hawkishness and her credentials to become the first female commander in chief. He reportedly told her not to apologize for voting to authorize the president to use military force in Iraq, which opened up a large space on her left for a newcomer who had opposed the war (from the safety of Chicago), Sen. Barack Obama. But if Clinton runs this time, it will almost certainly be because so many of her loyal female supporters (as well as new admirers) see the historic accomplishment of a female president within their (our) reach. This time around, she will rightly emphasize her bid to finally crack "the highest, hardest glass ceiling," and she will thrill several generations of American women (and men) by doing so.

Will that historic achievement give her campaign a sufficiently futuristic aura to survive charges that she's merely the sequel to the Obama administration? I doubt it.

Clinton will have to work hard to avoid the complacence that comes from being the front-runner. Last time around, she failed. In December 2007 she famously declared, “I’m in it for the long run. It’s not a very long run. It’ll be over by February 5th.” In fact, it almost was over Feb. 5 -- for her candidacy. She ran a much better campaign once she became the underdog, and tailored her economic appeal to the country's worried working and middle classes. There is no way she will enter the 2016 race as any kind of underdog, but she's got to think hard about whether and how she can update the populist appeal that worked in 2008 for a new decade's challenges.

Like it or not, Clinton is inextricably tied to Obama's presidency. If he stumbles in the coming years, her candidacy will be wounded if not doomed. If he does well, cementing the gains of Obamacare, toughening not weakening Wall Street reform, resisting a Medicare-cutting "grand bargain" and presiding over a recovering economy that takes a page from the New Deal and once again builds opportunity ladders to the middle class, she could be unbeatable.

Or not. Bill Clinton's successful presidency didn't sweep Vice President Al Gore into the White House with its momentum (of course, that's partly because Gore ran away from Clinton and his Lewinsky-impeachment mess). Still, even if Clinton embraced her predecessor and ran on his record, a fickle press corps that loves intrigue, gossip and a close race (even when there isn't one; see October 2012) would put covering the achievements of Obama's presidency on the back burner in favor of real and imagined scandals and the sexy potential of a new Republican and Democratic nominee, even if he's anything but new. Even if he's running to be our third President Bush in 24 years, or the second Cuomo to govern New York and then hunger for the presidency.

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Maybe most challenging, Hillary Clinton is going to have to do more than defend the domestic policies of the Obama administration -- and go beyond them, if she wants to make a lasting, measurable difference in reversing income inequality. She will also have to defend Obama's more controversial national security policies, including the expanded use of drones, the wider dragnet of domestic surveillance and the president's claiming the right to assassinate American citizens.  People on the left who rightly or wrongly held their political fire in the 2012 race, judging that the president would be better on all of these issues than Mitt Romney, have at least two years to organize and push these issues, perhaps behind an insurgent candidate. And the critics won't necessarily only come from the left on these issues. In 2016, Americans won't be happy with "Osama bin Laden is dead, and GM is alive."

Remnick's reporting from the Saban Forum underscored the foreign policy challenges of a Clinton candidacy. Although the Obama administration certainly pushed the Middle East peace process harder than Bush officials did, the prospects for peace may be dimmer than ever. Clinton's warm-up act at the forum was hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who argued (to little pushback) that "settlements are not an obstacle to peace. The opposite is true.” Clinton followed him, boasting of opposing last week's symbolic U.N. vote for Palestinian statehood and supplying Israel with the "Iron Dome" weaponry that protects it from Hamas rockets, while asking Israel for "generosity" toward the Palestinians. She was rewarded Monday with the Netanyahu government announcing plans to expand its settlements on Palestinian land.

Even after she leaves as secretary of state, Clinton will continue to face tough questions about U.S. Middle East policy if she runs for president. As well she should. The GOP crusade against Susan Rice is personal and unfair, especially since questions about the State Department's security situation in Benghazi, the role of the CIA at the consulate, as well as the administration's ongoing Libya policy, are more appropriately asked of Clinton. And have no fear, they will be, should she run. The 2016 election will at least partly be about whether the Obama administration's policies have made Americans safer and the world more just. The answer to both questions may turn out to be yes, at least within the confines of reasonable 21stcentury political expectations (I recognize that's kind of a cop-out qualifier, but the question deserves an article, or a book, or books, or a whole library, of its own). But it's a debate worth having, and Clinton would be either blessed or cursed with having to defend the Obama side.

I'm not saying that there's no independent or future-oriented rationale for a Clinton candidacy. The widening political gender gap, and the centrality of so-called women's issues to both American domestic policy and foreign policy, makes the prospect of a President Hillary Clinton exciting and even potentially subversive. Whether she's facing down Rick Santorum or Mohammed Morsi, Clinton would be the standard bearer for a world view that says – with evidence – that societies prosper when they liberate women, and they rot from within when they suppress them. There is no magic bullet when it comes to fighting global poverty, but educating and empowering women is the next best thing, and Republicans are going in the wrong direction with their anti-women's rights crusade. I would love to see Clinton fighting the enemies of women's progress at home and abroad from the White House.

Finally, while I reject criticism that Clinton should forgo a run because of her age – I think Nancy Pelosi handled that question quite well – I do think people have valid reservations about the nepotism and inbreeding of our political elite. In 2008, I fought hard against the ahistorical, inaccurate notion that the middle-class Clintons, a married couple, could be considered a political "dynasty" à la the Bush family dynasty. Still, I would wince at yet another Clinton-Bush contest. But if it came to that, I would, of course, enthusiastically support Hillary Clinton over Jeb Bush – and so would most of the country.

But it's a long way from here to there, with a lot of domestic and international landmines that could make Clinton forgo the race or else doom her candidacy if she runs. I write as a Hillary admirer. But I think the fawning of her overclass admirers, as captured on the Saban video, could make her presidency not inevitable but impossible.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 Elections Democratic Party Feminism Haim Saban Hilary Clinton Middle East