"In a race for the presidency, Hillary Rodham Clinton faces a problem that has dogged her since her days as first lady: an entrenched bloc of voters who simply do not like her. ... The voters who disapprove of Mrs. Clinton are numerous and unshakable, and they have been around so long that they even have a name in political circles: Hillary haters." -- Raymond Hernandez in The New York Times.
New York's junior U.S. senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton, says that she has not yet decided whether she will run for president in 2008, and I believe her. After all, she has to get through a re-election campaign in 2006, and if she were to lose or have a tough time, her national ambitions would be all but over.
But assuming Clinton is re-elected handily, she'll automatically be the Democratic front-runner by virtue of name recognition, a feminist bloc vote and proven fundraising capability.
As former Clinton consultant Dick Morris has pointed out, Hillary has shrewdly moved to the center: supporting the Bush administration on Middle East policy and voicing worries about abortion, same-sex marriage and the culture's effects on children. Barring a series of mistakes, she'll be the overwhelming favorite in the Democratic primaries, where women make up roughly 55 percent of the electorate, and Clinton can also count on the support of numerous black, Hispanic and white liberal men.
Then comes the hard part: In the general election, Clinton would for the first time in her career face a large bloc of conservative voters. The familiar Republican "red" and Democratic "blue" divisions would figure prominently in her calculations. It's difficult to think of a single state lost by the last two Democratic nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry, that she could tip into the Democratic column under normal circumstances. Clinton could well be like my former boss Kathleen Brown, who ran for California governor a decade ago: able to easily win a Democratic primary, but quite vulnerable in the general election.
Both Michelle Cottle in The New Republic and Jonathan Chait in The Los Angeles Times have asserted that Clinton is completely unelectable. They raise all the usual objections: the Clinton scandals, the reluctance of older voters to support women for executive office, the usual problems senators have in running for president, her probable inability to appeal to red states, her liberal, even radical reputation and of course, the "Hillary haters" who presumably would come out of the woodwork to oppose her.
Chait was particularly scathing: "She surely would go down in flames if she won the nomination in 2008. President Bush owed his victory in large part to cultural division. If there's anybody who incites cultural divisions, it's Hillary Clinton. ... She's painfully uncharismatic. Her only political accomplishment is that she won a Senate seat in an extremely Democratic state, where she ran six percentage points behind Al Gore. Clinton's supporters like to note that she's not as liberal as people think. That's exactly the problem. I can see the logic behind nominating a liberal whom voters see as moderate. Nominating a moderate whom voters see as liberal is kind of backward, isn't it?"
A liberal New York audience recently asked Hollywood billionaire and powerbroker David Geffen, who has contributed massively to Democrats, especially Bill Clinton, about Hillary Clinton's presidential prospects. His answer: "She can't win and she's an incredible polarizing figure. And ambition is just not a good enough reason."
So much for elite opinion. What do the data say?
Since Elizabeth Dole ran for president in 1999-2000, numerous polls have asked voters if they would vote for a woman "if she were qualified." Huge majorities, ranging from 61 percent to 91 percent, said "yes."
But the bad news is from a related question: When asked if the nation was ready to elect a woman president, the numbers ranged from 48 percent to 61 percent "yes."
Since any anti-woman voter could rationalize his or her negative attitude by saying "she's not qualified," the jury must still be out on this question. There's only one way to find out for sure, and the answer could be painful for Clinton. Any female candidate would to have to sweep the two-thirds of the pro-woman voters with no margin for error.
As for Clinton's image, the "Hillary haters" are real -- polls have consistently shown over the past half-decade that almost as many people dislike her as like her, and some folks are plain obsessed with her. Virtually all conservatives and many older men see her as too liberal, too aggressive and too outspoken.
Though her positives have improved in the last year, it's uncertain whether those improvements would hold up under the stress of a presidential campaign. Clinton is currently polling in the low-to-mid 40s against various Republicans like John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Bill Frist.
That's actually bad news for a candidate with universal name recognition. Barring something dramatic, people are not likely to change their minds about a candidate so well known. For example, Clinton led Senate Majority Leader Frist 40 percent to 33 percent in a Fox News poll. Since one-third of all voters can't identify Frist, he has much greater potential for growth. As California pollster Mervin Field has noted, celebrity candidates tend to peak early.
While Clinton would likely struggle to win a majority in the Electoral College, I have sketched two scenarios where she could overcome the "Hillary haters" and win. First is a Bush collapse in his second term that creates a "throw the bums out" climate like 1932 or 1980. Under such circumstances, any Democratic nominee would win.
Or she could win a three-way split where a moderate or conservative independent candidate splits the Republican base. That's how her husband beat the first President Bush in 1992 with an assist from Ross Perot. Either one of those two scenarios is possible, but not necessarily likely.
But there is another way for Clinton to make history and serve the nation: by accepting the vice presidential nod. Combining a moderate white male's appeal to red states with Clinton's proven appeal to white liberals and minorities could be quite a strong combination for a change-hungry electorate in 2008.
Contrary to popular belief, vice presidential candidates rarely make a big difference in national campaigns. The only one in the last century to undeniably help a ticket win was in 1960 when Lyndon Johnson helped the Democrats hold onto Texas and a majority of Southern states.
I can't think of an instance when a vice presidential nominee sunk a ticket all by himself or herself. No, Bob Dole didn't cost Republicans the election of 1976 -- President Ford lost it himself with his gaffe on Poland ("There is no Soviet domination" there) in the final debate. And George McGovern was going to lose badly, regardless of the choice of Thomas Eagleton, who withdrew after it was revealed that he had been hospitalized for depression.
As Newsweek's "Conventional Wisdom Monitor" commented in 1988 after the first President Bush selected Dan Quayle as his running mate to nearly universal negative media comment: "If Quayle can't sink a ticket, who can?"
A Clinton vice presidential selection could pull off the neat trick of: a) mobilizing the Democratic base; and b) drawing most of the Republican fire from the nominee.
Since she has a definite following within the party, Clinton would be an excellent liberal ticket-balancer for a presidential candidate from the South or Midwest. Numerous such men have been mentioned by the national media: Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., or perhaps a new Democratic governor of Florida elected in 2006?
Chris Matthews has reported on MSNBC that Al Gore has already decided against running in 2008. But that might not be official, and he could reconsider. Hey, a Gore and a Clinton running together on the Democratic ticket worked before.
Would Clinton have the wisdom and modesty to accept the second spot in 2008 and then grow into the presidency four or eight years down the road? That could be her shrewdest career move yet.
(Patrick Reddy serves as a consultant to California's Assembly Democrats.)
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