Considering the formidable advantages Hillary Clinton has assembled for 2008, why should anyone feel sorry for her? Because the Senator is in a trap, and many of her assets have swiftly turned into liabilities. This predicament is largely of her own making but also of changed circumstances she did not foresee. Front-runners have often fared poorly in Democratic nominating contests during the last thirty years, especially when establishment insiders promoted an aura of inevitability for them. Hillary is a candidate for the same fate.
Inevitability actually is (or was) her core strategy. For six years, talented ranks of Clintonistas have assiduously worked Washington and Wall Street to create that expectation for her. They promoted romantic yearnings for a Clinton restoration in the age of George W. Bush. They amassed awesome advantages to scare off less famous opponents or, if need be, to crush them. Senator Inevitable has all the money and brains and influential connections. Plus, she has a rock-star-popular husband, the ex-President, who’s a brilliant strategist and performer.
What could go wrong? Well, things changed–dramatically–and the front-runner now finds herself scrambling to catch up with the zeitgeist. The watershed election of 2006 confirmed that Bush and the conservative order are in collapse. That inspires Democrats to embrace a far more ambitious sense of what’s possible. Senator Clinton, the brainy policy wonk conscientiously calculating her next move, suddenly seems miscast for an era when Democrats are on offense and bolder ideas are back in play.
Clinton’s great vulnerability was captured brilliantly by Barack Obama in a single sentence, without a mention of her name. “It’s time to turn the page…” People are looking forward, not back, he declares. People long for a promising new generation in politics. Let’s not turn back to old fights, the acrimony of decades past.
Nothing personal. But Hillary Clinton is the past.
When she cites the family accomplishments–his and hers–or reminds audiences that “Bill and I” stood up to the vicious right-wing assaults, it sounds almost as though she is offering a co-presidency. If anyone misses the connection, the former President seems to be everywhere, touting his own thoughts on how to govern the country (presumably cleared with her, but who knows?).
This is the central tension in Senator Clinton’s campaign. It’s what makes her sound conflicted. Does she intend to emulate the risk-averse, center-right juggling act by which her husband governed? Or, as she sometimes suggests, will Clinton II be more aggressively progressive, less beholden to business and financial interests, more loyal to the struggles of working people? Senator Clinton tries to have it both ways: running on her husband’s record and popularity, yet hinting she will not be like Bill.
That sounds like a tough sell. Some Democrats love him forever, others still loathe him for what he did or failed to do in office. The Senator seems to be betting that nostalgia will prevail among party faithful, perhaps accompanied by amnesia. In any case, this contradiction undermines her aura as a forceful leader. Bill Clinton had the persuasive skills to get away with this, charming even those he had betrayed. Hillary Clinton may lack the insincerity to pull it off.