Early in the 2008 presidential election season, I was invited to attend a luncheon and panel discussion on the upcoming election at the magnificently restored Willard Hotel. The event was sponsored by one of the large law firms in Washington. Law firms don’t do this kind of thing where I used to practice. But this is the Imperial City.
The moderator was former Democratic Congressman and Michigan Governor James Blanchard. The panel included my old Congressman from south St. Louis, former Democratic presidential candidate, Congressman and House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, Charlie Cook, top political pundit at the National Journal, and Dick Armey former Republican Texas Congressman, also a past House Majority Leader, and co-chair of FreedomWorks, a leading Tea Party organization. Not a shabby collection of political players you might think.
The discussion soon came around to the Democratic presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and a junior U.S. Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. To a man, Gephardt, Cook, and Armey all predicted, without hesitation, that Hillary Clinton would beat Barack Obama and go on to the general election without breaking a sweat (my words not theirs).
That day, and the hopelessly wrong predictions of the panel of Washington insiders, came to mind while reading an article by
Robert W. Merry, political editor for the National Interest, a foreign policy magazine with a distinctly “realist” bent, and author of several well-regarded books on American history.
In “Handicaps in Hillary’s Way,” Merry asserts, boldly, that Hillary Clinton isn’t likely ever to become president of the United States.” Furthermore, “there is a greater possibility than is generally recognized by the Washington cognoscenti that she won’t even run.” Since her high water mark in the 2008 campaign, circumstances now have reduced her prospects “near zero.”
Merry argues that the nation is at an “inflection point” due to the current “crisis of political deadlock” and requires “a new brand of politics” with a view to the future. At times such as these “a gap normally opens up between the political establishment, guided by the lessons of the past, and the electorate, always ahead of the establishment in pushing for new political paradigms, new dialectical thinking and new coalitions.”
Parenthetically, ask yourself what this means in terms of the Republican presidential primary for 2016. But that is a topic for another day.
Merry then sticks this pin in his Hillary voodoo doll: “Her recent autobiography betrays a politician seemingly devoid of fresh thinking or even recognition of what kind of political message is required by the temper of the times.” He may be a bit hard on Mrs. Clinton here. After all, this describes most Democratic presidential candidates after Bill Clinton who, to his credit, did embrace the reform elements of his party. Personally, I have not read a thing written by a politician since Churchill or Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But I take Merry’s point.
Who can beat Hillary? “Think back just about exactly eight years, when the same sense of inevitability was attached to the same candidate by the same political commentators and observers [see above],” writes Merry. “Their weapon of choice: the polls.”
“In January 2007, Real Clear Politics commingled a number of polls to arrive at a reading suggesting Mrs. Clinton was ahead of her nearest rival, Barack Obama, by 38 percent to 18 percent,” Merry reminds us. “Ten months later, the gap was 49 percent to 20 percent. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in October 2007 pegged Mrs. Clinton at 53 percent, compared with Mr. Obama’s 30 percent. The poll officials said she was up 12 points in three weeks, while he was down 7 points.”
“Of course, we all know what happened,” says Merry. “The new man on the political scene, Mr. Obama, obliterated those early poll numbers and overwhelmed her in the nomination fight.”
Whether Hillary Clinton had a political glass jaw, possibly resulting from her robust support for George W. Bush’s adventure in Iraq, or Barack Obama ran a masterful campaign using cutting-edge technology and outreach, is a fair question. But Merry is correct to note the limitations of polling, especially when known and unknown parties or candidates are being tested in a poll.
Even if Hillary Clinton wins the primary race, she still has to live with the unpleasant legacy of Barack Obama and her complicity in it as a member of his Cabinet. Robert Merry sides with the historians against the political scientists in opining that “history tells us that presidential elections are largely referendums on the four-year performance of the incumbent or incumbent party. Mr. Obama was elected largely because of the perceived failures of George W. Bush in his second term. Ronald Reagan was elected because of Jimmy Carter’s abysmal record.”
Of course, politics, like life, is full of contingencies. It makes a difference how the game is played. There is also the rather troubling question of what will transpire on the Republican side of the equation. And who exactly is really speaking to the new issues or a “new brand of politics”? Finally, and this is the most disturbing part, do the American people, or electorate anyway, really want to break the deadlock or push for “new political paradigms, new dialectical thinking and new coalitions”? Politics is a lagging indicator, driven by cultural realities. Washington gridlock reflects the social and cultural reality of a truly divided society in which Red and Blue states are not simply colors on a map but very real signs of deep divisions within the body politic.
The hangover from the Great Recession has given rise to feelings of class resentment and longing for government support and protections which make any kind of reform difficult. Neil Ferguson has noted how clueless most young and hip voters are in supporting more entitlement spending, more subsidies for higher education and the like, all of which will simply add to the crushing burden on their future working lives and families. There are pretty disturbing polling data indicating that many Tea Party members really do not want to see any reform of Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. Evidently, they think you can control federal spending simply by cutting foreign aid or the Weather Service or something. Public employee unions, farmers, proponents of the IMF — all of them resist change and march under the banner of “more of the same.”
But hope is a theological virtue not grounded in reason or empiricism. We can pray that new political entrepreneurs, the kind Robert Merry hopes to see on the national stage, are waiting in the wings and ready to make their grand entrance.