It's "Hillary is doomed" week!: Conventional wisdom weirdos lose their minds

Remember way back last week when they said she was a shoo-in? Now they say she's bound to blow it. Wrong again!

By Jim Newell

Published February 8, 2014 3:00PM (EST)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

While we await the Great Decision that's still about a year off, the conversation fluctuates week to week: Either Hillary Clinton can't be stopped, or she is doomed. Dooooomed! Some weeks people are all, "Oh hey, she's the biggest front-runner in Democratic primary history." And then the next week ... nothing? ... after nothing happens, it's all, "she's going to blow it again! Silly Hillary Clinton, always blowing it."

This week, as you may have intercepted from Internet "chatter," has been a Hillary-is-doomed week.

BuzzFeed's Ben Smith kicked it off earlier this week with a piece that surprisingly got former Obama campaign aides to go on the record (and unsurprisingly got Joe Trippi to go on the record) comparing the early framing of a 2016 Clinton bid to that of 2008's failed bid. The concern is that, once again, she's being positioned as the inevitable nominee, which can only invite backlash. “The further out front the effort to elect Sec. Clinton is three years before election day, the greater the incentive is for the press, prospective opponents, and adversarial groups to scrutinize and attack her every move,” said Ben LaBolt. Joe Trippi, who managed John Edwards' 2008 campaign, echoed that, saying, “I see real similarities emerging in terms of carrying the mantle of the status quo, getting out front too soon — and playing it safe. The GOP is so messed up it might work — but running this way could be the way she loses again."

Another "former top Obama aide" brought up another similarity: that Clinton "doesn’t have a compelling rationale for her candidacy" beyond inevitability. Andrew Sullivan, who to put it mildly has never been much of a Hilldawg fan, concurred:

What are her defining issues? Will she run on Obamacare – ensuring its success? Will she run on climate change? Or protection of entitlements? How would her foreign policy differ from Obama’s? Until we get a sense of where she is headed as far as policy is concerned, she runs the risk of appearing as some kind of large juggernaut that simply has to be elected, well, just because. Maybe being the first woman president would render all these other issues moot. But at some point, she will have to enter the fray. I’m not sure she’s actually fully prepped for that.

Mother Jones' Kevin Drum, a Clinton fan, agrees:

As first lady, she was the driving force behind health care reform, but that failed miserably. And now that Obamacare has been passed, it's not an issue big enough to base a campaign on. As senator, she was known for working well across the aisle and being an effective representative for New York, but there are no big legislative victories to her name. And as secretary of state, she once again gained a reputation as diligent and effective, but not as a game changer.

Chances are that when she decides to run, she will issue a policy platform, so we'll know soon enough what she's interested in. (It should also be said that all of these mysteries about what she's going to run on apply to the entire field of possible candidates. Unlike 2008, they'll be running on the heels of an eight-year incumbent from the same party. Do they just ... say the same basic bland liberal stuff he says? Criticize him here or there? It's unclear.)

But since this has been a week devoted to the ways her proto-2016 campaign shares the same perceived fatal flaws of her 2008 campaign, it might be a good idea to look at how 2016 could shape up more favorably for her.

The problem with a lot of these remembrances -- that her 2008 "narrative" was fundamentally flawed, that she had no "rationale" -- is that they forget that she very nearly won the nomination. Barack Obama won 2,201 delegates to Hillary Clinton 1,896. The party was effectively split in half, and Obama eked it out by running a more tactically sound campaign that took advantage of the calendar and uncontested caucus states. It also helped that Barack Obama was the sort of phenomenal politician unlikely to appear again any time soon.

Barack Obama was certainly the underdog in 2008, but he was never really the scrappy, never-had-a-chance long shot that we remember him as today. From the moment he gave his speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, there was palpable and durable excitement for his presidential candidacy in 2008. By mid-2007, after the first six months of his campaign, he had raised more money than Hillary Clinton as well. And while he was still losing in national polls at the time, it was only by 15-20 percentage points -- a far cry from the 60 or so percentage points that Clinton's possible 2016 contenders are consistently shown to be trailing.

In other words, if someone was positioned to have a strong chance of upsetting Hillary Clinton, we'd have a pretty good idea of who that person would be right around now. Does any name pop off the top of your head? "Biden," you say? Is there any real, broad excitement anywhere for the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency? Yeah no.

Think again about how close the primary race was in 2008, when the party was effectively split in half. Clinton's support wasn't just passive either -- a lot of people passionately wanted her to become president. From what I can tell, those people want it even more passionately now. (Hi, Mom! Hi, most other people's baby-boomer moms!) A lot of people who supported Obama may also think that it's Clinton's time now. So she would maintain most of her half of the party, while having a whole other half there for the taking. She would only need a portion of it. It's unlikely that another candidate can emerge who's so perfectly calibrated to bring together huge majorities of the African-American, young, and progressive blocs of the party, as Obama was in 2008.

And then: yeah, electability. Hillary Clinton desperately tried to sell herself on "electability" in 2008, in pitches to both the general primary electorate and superdelegates. Nobody really bought it, though, because it was pretty obvious from about ~2006 onward that whoever won the Democratic nomination in 2008 would become the next president. That's not the case this time. The country will have had a Democratic president, and not an especially popular one, for eight years. For Democrats to retain the White House for another four years, opting for the juggernaut with the recognition and resources to grind out a 51-percent victory has its appeals.

So sure, maybe she will end up blowing it again. Who knows! But before people get too caught up in how similar her operation may be to the failed one of 2008, it's important to remember that a) her 2008 one, with all of its mistakes, didn't fail by that much, and b) there are a significant number of factors more suited to her success in 2016 than there were in 2008. She didn't lose then because of a "lack of rationale for her candidacy" or an "aura of inevitability." She mostly lost because Barack Obama, a unique force perfectly suited to defeat her in that specific election cycle, came around. And he's not running again.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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