In December 2007, just as the 2008 presidential primaries were beginning to heat up, and with Hillary Clinton 26 points ahead in national polling of Democrats, I wrote an article for AlterNet arguing that she was beatable, that she had vulnerabilities the other candidates did not have, that she had historically high “unfavorables,” that she polled poorly against Republicans and that Democrats should rethink the “inevitability” of her candidacy. Apparently, they did and we know how that turned out.
Once again, Clinton is riding high in polling of Democrats; once again, her supporters are claiming she is “inevitable;” and once again, she has vulnerabilities other candidates lack, including extremely high “unfavorables,” as well as additional liabilities in 2016 she didn’t have in 2008 — some of her own making, some not.
1. Worrisome Polling
Hillary Clinton has maintained consistently high “unfavorable” ratings since at least 2007 (ranging from 40 to 52 percent). In December 2007, they were running 45 percent and are still hovering in the 45 percent range today. In 2007, I wrote that her unfavorable” ratings “currently are running 45 percent — far higher than any other Democratic or Republican presidential hopeful and higher than any presidential candidate at this stage in polling history. Hillary may be the most well-known, recognizable candidate, but that is proving to be as much of a burden as a benefit.” That still seems to be true.
Before Chris Christie melted down in the Bridge-Gate scandal, Quinnipiac, a well-respected poll, had him running ahead of Hillary Clinton 43-42 percent. That doesn’t, in my opinion, mean Christie is a strong candidate — people hardly know who he is — but it suggests Clinton is a weak, or at least vulnerable, candidate. She is someone who has been on the national scene prominently for 20-plus years, people know her, yet a relatively unknown Republican runs even with her? Not a sign of strength.
In an April 24, 2014 Quinnipiac poll in Colorado, a state with two Democratic senators and a Democratic governor, Rand Paul is out-polling Clinton 45-40 percent and she is running 42-42 percent against the scandal-ridden Christie. Colorado is a blue state Democrats need to win in 2016 and having a well-known Democrat running behind a virtual unknown Republican is not good news.
2. New Liabilities
By every metric, voters are in a surly mood and they are not going to be happy campers in 2016, either. Why should they be? The economy is still in the toilet, not enough jobs are being created even to keep up with population growth, personal debt and student debt are rising, college graduates can’t find jobs, retirement benefits are shrinking, infrastructure is deteriorating, banksters never were held accountable for melting down the economy, inequality is exploding — and neither party is addressing the depth of the problems America faces.
As a result, voters in 2016 will be seeking change and there is no way Clinton can run as a “change” candidate — indeed, having been in power in Washington for 20-plus years as First Lady, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, she is the poster child for the Washington political establishment, an establishment that will not be popular in 2016. This problem is not really her fault, but it creates serious headwinds for her candidacy and makes her susceptible to any Republican candidate who does not appear to be crazy, who can say a few reasonable things and who looks fresh, new and different. The status quo is not going to be popular in 2016 and if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic presidential candidate, even though she will try to harken back to the relative prosperity of the 1990s, she will not be able to escape being the candidate representing old ideas and an unpopular status quo.
3. Democratic Party Base
On nearly every important issue, except women’s issues, Clinton stands to the right of her Democratic base. Overwhelmingly, Democrats believe that Wall Street played a substantial role in gaming the system for their benefit while melting down the economy, but Clinton continues to give speeches to Goldman Sachs at $200,000 a pop, assuring them that, “We all got into this mess together and we’re all going to have to work together to get out of it.” In her world — a world full of friends and donors from Wall Street — the financial industry does not bear any special culpability in the financial meltdown of 2007-'08. The mood of the Democratic base is populist and angry, but Clinton is preaching lack of accountability.
According to an April 29, 2014 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll done by Hart Research, only four percent of American voters have a great deal of confidence in the financial industry, while 43 percent have “very little or none at all.” With Wall Street at a historic low in popularity and respect, with her close ties to Goldman Sachs, Bob Rubin and the financial industry, Clinton will be perceived as Wall Street’s candidate.
Clinton has not explained why she supported the repeal of Glass-Steagall legislation, which deregulated banks during the Clinton administration and contributed significantly to Wall Street speculation, the meltdown of big banks and the trillion-dollar federal bailout. She has not explained her support for NAFTA, which has eroded the manufacturing base of America and cost American workers a million-plus well-paid jobs; nor her support as Secretary of State for the Trans Pacific Partnership, which has been described as “NAFTA on steroids.” On all these core financial issues, Clinton is well to the right of the Democratic base, so how is she going to fire up the base the way Obama’s promises of “Hope and Change” fired it up in 2008?
Clinton is no more in-tune with her Democratic base on foreign policy issues than on domestic issues. She is not simply a hawk at a time when the Democratic base (and the country) is sick of expensive and counter-productive foreign adventures, she is a superhawk, consistently trying to outflank Republicans on foreign policy issues. We all know she voted in favor of invading Iraq in 2003, despite the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and despite the fact that evidence of WMDs was sketchy at best. She has never recanted that vote, shown any remorse about not examining classified reports about Iraq, reports that were made available to her before the vote nor expressed any qualms about the fact that the U.S. blew $3 trillion down a rat-hole in Iraq and Afghanistan with nothing to show for it. Then, five years later, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan collapsing, she strongly urged new President Obama to escalate the commitment of troops in Afghanistan, advice that proved disastrous. It is no surprise that General David Petraeus has endorsed Clinton for President. He knows a military hawk when he sees one.
More recently, she supported invading Libya and bombing Syria. And, at a time when Obama was trying to moderate Putin’s behavior in the Ukraine and get our European allies to support economic sanctions against Russia, Clinton threw gasoline on the fire by comparing Putin to Hitler, a comparison which is ridiculous on many counts, but which played very badly with our allies.
Ironically, Rand Paul represents the concerns of the Democratic base far better than Clinton about foreign interventions and the excesses of the National Security State and if he were the Republican presidential candidate, would undermine her support among Democrats in an unprecedented way.
Clinton’s biggest asset, in my opinion, is that she is a woman, and America is long past the time when a woman should be elected President. But Democrats already win the women’s vote and lose the vote of men, so what is the net advantage? She also has the highest name-recognition of any candidate, which is why she is polling so highly in Democratic polls, but name-recognition evaporates in any high-profile campaign and is an ephemeral asset.
Indeed, that is the essence of her problem: She has a small and active hardcore base of feminist supporters and donors; a large core of conservatives who hate the Clintons; and among others, her support is a mile wide and two inches deep — which is why a relative unknown ran her down and beat her in 2008.
5. Bill’s Legacy
Hillary Clinton's campaign will harken back to the glory years of the Clinton administration, but how much is that going to help? Certainly, Bill Clinton deserves credit for some things. He increased taxes on the rich, wages grew in his second term and jobs were created in his eight years as President (helped in no small part by the tech revolution and the financial bubble he helped create and which ended in disaster 10 years later). Bill also expanded the earned income tax credit, which helped working people. But there are a lot of things his administration did which don’t look very good in hindsight.
With help from Newt Gingrich, he enacted a Draconian welfare reform program; he overrode the opposition of labor to enact NAFTA, again with mostly Republican support; and, he repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which deregulated Wall Street. As he described himself to Bob Woodward, “I hope you’re all aware we’re all Eisenhower Republicans. We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn’t that great?” Conservative Alan Greenspan, whom Bill twice appointed to chair the Federal Reserve Board, said, “Bill Clinton was the best Republican president we’ve had in awhile.”
So here we are, 20 years later, with wages of average workers in decline, CEO pay and Wall Street bonuses accelerating at obscene rates, pensions disappearing, the loss of millions of jobs to developing countries thanks to NAFTA and exploding wealth inequality. Yes, we can blame Bush/Cheney for their contributions to these trends, but the major policy changes that started the ball rolling steeply downhill for workers and the middle class began in the Clinton administration.
There is no question Hillary Clinton is smart, hard-working and competent. She does her homework, shows up for work every day and works long hours. Yet she has been on the world stage for more than 20 years, so it is fair to ask what are her accomplishments over those 20 years. She led a healthcare task force in Bill Clinton’s first term, but that effort failed, largely because she was not collaborative and failed to involve Congress, despite the fact Democrats controlled it. She repeatedly claims credit for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, passed during Bill Clinton’s second term, and while her role has been disputed even by the bill’s sponsors, she played an important role in supporting it within the White House and later publicly.
In 2008, however, she tried to bootstrap many accomplishments of her husband by exaggerating her role as First Lady and got roundly mocked for her exaggerations. She had a term as U.S. Senator, and was re-elected, but can anyone identify anything of consequence that she accomplished during that period other than facilitating Republican idiocy by supporting Bush’s war in Iraq? Then she spent four years as Secretary of State, which certainly improved her public profile, but can anyone identify any substantial accomplishments she had as Secretary of State?
Clinton came to the role of Secretary of State with a huge asset — her strong relationship with AIPAC and the Israeli government. She, like President Obama, supports a two-state solution, opposes Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory and seeks peace with the Palestinians. There was hope when she was appointed that she would leverage her strong relationship with AIPAC and move Israel away from aggressive settlement activity and toward the peace process. That did not happen. Clinton is cautious, by nature, and I have little doubt she feared angering her wealthy Jewish donors by pushing them hard on peace negotiations. So she didn’t act and whatever leverage she had was wasted; it was not until John Kerry replaced her as Secretary of State that peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine resumed. Likewise with Iran, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was a consistent advocate of tough sanctions and serious peace negotiations did not begin until John Kerry replaced her.
7. Foreign Policy Credentials
The Arab Spring exploded on her watch, but Clinton and U.S. foreign policy drifted. There were no long-term strategies and with her stewardship, America supported whoever looked like a winner. When it was Mubarak, she supported Mubarak. When he was going down, she supported elections. Then when they had elections and the military tossed out the winners, she supported the military. Of course, she is not the only person responsible for the policy drift, but where did she leave a positive imprint on the direction of American foreign policy?
In my opinion, she has been wrong about almost every major foreign policy question in recent American history. She probably lost the Democratic presidential primaries and the presidential nomination due to her ill-advised vote to start a war in Iraq, a vote which ultimately gave Obama’s candidacy substantial impetus, and it is reasonable to assume she will face some amount of accountability with voters for her consistently hawkish and unpopular views on foreign interventions.
Is There a Democratic Alternative?
Bernie Sanders has declared his intent to run, but Sanders is technically a socialist; more importantly, his candidacy is unlikely to present a formidable challenge to Clinton.
The name on people’s lips is Elizabeth Warren, who is the harshest critic of Wall Street excesses and who speaks to the populist zeitgeist. Would she run, despite having said she is not interested?
I think we should take her protestations of disinterest seriously. Running for President is a brutal task: Two years of living in motels; two years of banquets and bad food; two years of glad-handing people; two years of dialing for donor dollars; two years of facing attacks from Republicans. No rational person would do it. Unless they wanted to change the world.
I believe there are five scenarios that would make it possible, perhaps even likely, for Elizabeth Warren to run in 2016:
- Elizabeth Warren ran for the U.S. Senate because she wanted to change the world, most immediately to break the stranglehold on American politics and the economy that Wall Street currently holds. If she sees Hillary Clinton continuing to suck up to the financial industry and offering the failed economics and deregulation beliefs of Bob Rubin, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, Warren might rethink what she can accomplish in the U.S. Senate. She is a person of great principle; she has fought for her principles, often against brutal odds. In the end, principles could prove more compelling than the easier and more comfortable path of stepping back.
- I have been told by friends of hers that Warren likes her job as senator and thinks she can make important contributions in that role. But if the Democrats lose the Senate in November 2014, she might need to rethink that, because as a member of the minority in a rigidly controlled Republican Senate, it is unlikely she could accomplish anything.
- Warren might rethink the clock. She is 64 now and would be 67 on Election Day 2016. 2016 could be the only chance she has to run for President.
- Clinton could choose not to run. In December 2012, she suffered dehydration and fatigue, fainted, fell and hit her head, suffering a concussion. She was rehospitalized two weeks later and her condition was described as a clot between her brain and skull. She previously had suffered a large blood clot in her leg. These medical issues could cause her to rethink undertaking the rigors of a presidential campaign, which are brutal.
- Warren raised a record $42.5 million to run for the Senate and Democratic donors would come out in droves to fund her presidential campaign. A challenge to Clinton and Democratic Party orthodoxy by Warren would be like catnip to the media. So the minute Warren declared to run for President, she would have $100 million worth of free advertising from the media telling her story and playing up the differences between her and Clinton. Even if Warren lost, she would have pushed Clinton away from Wall Street and toward more progressive Democratic Party positions and ignited a new generation of Democrats opposed to neoliberalism and dedicated to making America a more fair and equal society.
Barbara Bush recently commented that America should have more choices for President than two family dynasties. This may be the first time I have ever agreed so strongly with Barbara Bush.