The most interesting thing to come out of the umpteenth Republican debate Sunday is confirmation that the GOP is dying to run against Hillary Clinton. Like Don Rickles flaying a heckler, each candidate whacked at Clinton as if she were a pants-suited piñata. When they were done with their one-liners, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee deadpanned: “Look, I like to be funny. There’s nothing funny about Hillary Clinton being president.”
No, but there’s something deeply advantageous about having her as an opponent. So far, the commentary about the Republican offensive against Hillary has focused mostly on how it reflects poorly on the GOP (those Clinton-hating wing nuts are at it again!). What’s not been fully grasped is how Hillary gives the GOP its best chance at being the party of change.
Newt Gingrich, for one, has been pointing this out for months, using the electoral triumph of Nicolas Sarkozy in France last spring as an example. A Cabinet minister for the unpopular Jacques Chirac, who’d served in office for a biblically long term of 12 years, Sarkozy ran against his own incumbent party’s complaisance as well as his Socialist opponent, Segolene Royal, arguing that she merely represented a return to a failed past and “more of the same.”
America -- obviously -- isn’t France, but Democrats may be misreading America nonetheless. It seems incandescently clear that voters want a change, and, up to now, change meant little more than Democratic victory and no more President Bush. But Democrats got a significant victory in 2006, when they took control of both houses of Congress. And now Congress is even less popular than Bush. In other words, the clamor for change in Washington is much bigger than Bush.
Besides, Bush is leaving no matter what. And unlike every other election since the 1920s, there’s no White House-approved candidate in the race. Any Republican will start with 40% to 45% of the vote in his pocket once he gets the nomination. The question that remains is whether the critical 5% to 10% of swing voters will think Hillary Clinton represents the sort of change they want.
What most independents and swing voters want is an end to the acrimony and bitterness in Washington -- and a candidate they like. Whether that’s right or not is irrelevant. That’s what they want.
Which Democratic candidate would be most likely to give those voters what they want? Not Hillary, it’s safe to say.
Right now, during the primaries, she can get away with boasting about her tenure in the Clinton administration. Party activists are drunk with Clinton nostalgia. On the stump in Iowa, Bill Clinton responded to the claim that Hillary was “yesterday’s news” by saying, yeah, but “yesterday’s news was pretty good.”
In the general election, audiences will remember Whitewater, travelgate, illegal fundraising, bimbo eruptions and impeachment. If they don’t, you can be sure Republicans will remind them. Fair or not, the Republicans’ intense dislike of Hillary will underscore the idea that a vote for her is a vote for more of the same rancor.
Hence the irony of the Clinton candidacy. Liberal activists keep saying that they want a candidate who is pure, who speaks from the heart and refuses to “triangulate” on core principles the way Bill Clinton did. But Hillary Clinton is Clintonian in more than just name. On national security in particular, she has been alternating between reflexive anti-Bushism to bouts of outright hawkishness on Iran. Desperate to win, Democrats have been willing to overlook that -- so far. But such shifting costs her credibility and passion.
It’s all deeply reminiscent of how John Kerry wound up as the nominee in 2004. Once Howard Dean, the conviction candidate, experienced the political equivalent of spontaneous human combustion, Democrats immediately cast about not for another principled politician but one they deemed electable. Bizarrely, they settled on the left-wing senator from Massachusetts who synthesized Ted Kennedy’s politics with Michael Dukakis’ charisma while bragging about his service in a war he built a career denouncing.
If Democrats could get out of their bubble, it might dawn on them that virtually all of their other candidates are better positioned to run as champions of change. Hillary Clinton has shrewdly tried to trim the differences between her and the competition by claiming that any of them would be better than George W. Bush. From a liberal perspective, that’s obviously true. But that perspective won’t necessarily dominate come next fall, particularly if conditions in Iraq continue to improve.
Is it really so obvious that, say, Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney represent “change” less than the ultimate Clinton retread, complete with Bill as “first gentleman?” That’s how Democrats are betting right now, and they may be bitterly disappointed -- again -- when it comes time to collect.