Ready for the inevitable? Why the hubris of Hillary Clinton's backers should make Dems nervous

If Clinton is trying to avoid the "inevitability trap" that doomed her in '08, this is not the way to do it

Published November 17, 2014 8:42PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Gary Cameron)
(Reuters/Gary Cameron)

As we saw in this Monday morning’s disturbing and all too predictable CNN report on the clever tricks Republican operatives used to sidestep laws barring them from working with super PACs, there’s still plenty about what happened during the 2014 midterms that we don’t know. But looking forward (not backward) has become all the rage in American politics in recent years, and thus is the conversation moving briskly ahead to 2016 and the question of whether President Hillary Clinton is not “if” but “when.”

The favored phrase is “inevitability,” and the consensus seems to be that, for Hillary Clinton, appearing inevitable is a good thing only to a point. As the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza put it in his recent novella on the crypto Clinton campaign, inevitability can be a “trap,” one that locks its victims into the mold of representing the establishment. I’m skeptical of the idea that it was a sense of inevitability, rather than frustration with her support for the invasion of Iraq, that undid Clinton in 2008. But no less an expert on that campaign than David Axelrod has recently echoed Lizza’s theme, warning his former rival to escape inevitability’s “cocoon.”

If that’s the goal, though, then partisan Democrats thinking about the next presidential election should find another report from Monday, this time from Talking Points Memo, even more worrisome than CNN’s. Because while the CNN piece shows how the electoral game has been rigged even more in the wealthy’s favor, making nice with the 1 percent has never been an issue for Hillary Clinton. The TPM report, on the other hand, features Clinton advisers bragging about how they hope to “expand Obama’s electoral map” in 2016 by bringing working-class white women into the fold. Considering she hasn’t even announced her campaign yet, the piece suggest that if the inevitability trap is real, the Clinton team is once again heading straight for it. 

“Where I think Secretary Clinton has more appeal than any other Democrat looking at running is that with white working-class voters, she does have a connection,” Mitch Stewart, who ran the battleground operation for President Obama’s 2012 campaign and is an adviser to the Ready for Hillary “grass roots” group, told TPM’s Dylan Scott. “I think she's best positioned to open those states,” he added, referring to Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri (and, to a lesser extent, Arizona and Georgia). Citing Clinton’s dominant performance among working-class whites in the 2008 primary contests in Ohio and Pennsylvania as proof of her popular status among these so-called beer track whites.

There’s no doubting that the electoral route the Clinton folks are calling the "new Clinton map" looks, to Democratic eyes, mighty nice. There’s all that blue on the coasts and in the upper Midwest we associated with Obama, but there are also little incursions of blue into traditionally red territory, like the upper South and the Southwest. For anyone inclined to consider the Republican Party to essentially be the party of Dixie and the vast swath of the country’s interior in which relatively few people live, it’s a powerful little picture of confirmation bias. Here it is, from TPM, with the states won by McCain and/or Romney that are supposedly in play if Clinton runs shaded in blue:

But if you back up a second and look twice at the argument Stewart and those of a similar bent are making, that map starts to look a lot more like a mirage than a model.

There are a few key tells in particular. For one, Arkansas has moved way to the right since the '90s, with the recent annihilation of Sen. Mark Pryor, who all but renamed himself "Clinton" in his failed reelection campaign, standing as the most recent proof. For another, the baseline map that the Clinton people use throughout isn’t the one that secured the president’s reelection in 2012, after a grueling and in many ways generic campaign. Rather, they’re using the one that first propelled Obama into the White House in 2008, after a campaign that was anything but ordinary — one that ended with a historic Democratic wave and the most decisive overall win by a presidential candidate since 1988. Bluntly put, the Democrats’ pickup of Indiana, and near-pickup of Missouri in ’08, was a fluke, which was made obvious by the ease with which the GOP won the states in 2012. (And Stewart’s argument that Indiana could be won because corporate lobbyist Evan Bayh loves Clinton is not worthy of a response.)

The other problem can be seen here, with my emphasis added: According to Stewart, “Clinton has a record of appealing to white working-class voters — especially women — and they could be enough when paired with the Obama coalition to pull out a win.” If this statement was made a month ago, I might look at it a bit askance, but I wouldn’t find it to be particularly suspect. But coming as it does just weeks after a midterm election that showed Democrats not only failing to motivate their voters to vote but losing support among key constituencies like Latino- and Asian-Americans, the quick assumption that the Obama coalition can be so easily rekindled is in serious need of interrogation. All the more so if we accept the premise that Clinton will appeal further to the kind of working-class whites who hate Obama, in no small part because of how they perceive his coalition (i.e., the people from whom we must “take our country back”).

But look, even if we stipulate all this and for the sake of argument say that Clinton 2016 could be the best of Obama '08 combined with the best of Clinton '96, this kind of talk at this early a date is exactly what the Clinton people should not be doing. Not only does it make Clinton sound complacent about earning the support of the Democratic rank-and-file, rather than simply inheriting it, but it signals that the people at the top of the Democratic Party have learned little from the drubbings in '10 and '14, and still hold the self-deluding and buck-passing view that there's nothing really wrong with the Democratic Party's approach to policy and governance that a better GOTV operation can't fix. I continue to agree with the conventional wisdom that holds Clinton to be the near-certain Democratic nominee, but if she runs a general election campaign infused with this kind of glib cynicism, she's going to find the "inevitable" label to be more curse than gift. Again.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

MORE FROM Elias Isquith