Hillary Leads Pack Now, But She Carries Lots of Baggage

Originally posted: July 29, 2005

Washington Monthly is an inside-the-beltway magazine with a long-standing outside-the-beltway perspective. In a gesture that will only add to a growing sense of “Hillary Inevitability,” the current cover offers a pairing by two first-rate reporters addressing both sides of the question: “Why Not Hillary?”

The subject herself spent part of this week big-footing the competition at the Democratic Leadership Council’s meeting in Columbus, Ohio. Hillary had the home field advantage. As the group’s national chairman in 1990, Bill Clinton kicked off his campaign for president at a similar meeting in Cleveland. The DLC still promotes the politics of “Clintonism” and has Bill on its fast track for sainthood.

Hillary easily eclipsed Sen. Evan Bayh, who handed over the gavel after leading the DLC for the past four years, along with Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsak and Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, the Southern entry. All are considered to have legitimate presidential ambitions. Nevertheless, all were awash in Hillary’s wake.

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey has dubbed Hillary the “rock star” of the Democratic Party. In Columbus, the audience mobbed Mrs. Clinton while Bayh and the others looked on. In this celebrity era, she has joined the one-namers Liberace, Pele, Cher, Bono, Newt, Madonna, Monica (whoops).

“With the exception of incumbents and vice presidents, no candidate since Reagan has had a hammerlock on his or her party’s nomination this long before the election,” says veteran Washington political reporter Carl Cannon in his article, “She Can Win the White House.” Conceding her the nomination (a mistake in my view), Cannon goes on to address Hillary’s greatest vulnerability: the growing assumption that she would be a sure loser in the general election.

Cannon’s assigned task was to rebut this notion. Considered more liberal than her husband, Hillary is engineering a makeover. Sen. Clinton positions herself in the party’s mainstream, in the middle of the Democratic caucus. On abortion, for example, which she terms “a sad and tragic act,” she calls on her co-religionists “to seek common ground with the other side.” On the party’s always-delicate issue of being soft on national security, she voted with Bush on Iraq and still supports the war, though now more critically.

Hillary could win, Cannon argues, because the country is ready for a woman, because she might actually pick up a red state (he suggests Florida) and because she has at her side the best strategic mind in the Democratic Party — Bill.

Washington Monthly’s Amy Sullivan’s rebuttal is titled, “Not So Fast.” Hillary is too deeply polarizing ever to win, she argues, and may not even get the woman’s vote. Focus groups have shown that a significant proportion of women feel Hillary has used her connections and celebrity unfairly to leap ahead and start at the top. Also, a significant number do not approve of her marriage. Though she transformed negative perceptions with face-to-face campaigning in the 2000 New York Senate race, running as first lady, Hillary’s image is too firmly set in concrete to win over Republicans and independents.

In my view, there is another issue. Hillary may find it no easier to sustain a three-year frontrunnership than did Gary Hart (1988) or Edmund Muskie (1972). Hart imploded when his extra-marital liaisons with Donna Rice came to light. Muskie’s hammerlock seemed even more solid than Hillary’s now, but once opponents got going, his front-runner balloon leaked and leaked until it simply collapsed.

Hillary’s challenge is similar to what Howard Dean faced when he was temporarily the rock star front-runner in the 2004 contest. Primary voters in the early states sensed that something about Dean would not wear well in a general election campaign, that they might be nominating a certain loser. Even before the famous Dean Scream, fear of buyer’s remorse set in. He dropped from first to third in Iowa and eventually left the race.

As strong as she is with her base among Democratic loyalists, Hillary remains the most deeply polarizing figure in American politics. With all the scandals of the Clinton administration available for GOP conjuring, Hillary carries more baggage than any front-runner in recent memory, and like Dean, she carries the distinct whiff of a sure loser. After Al Gore and John Kerry, Democrats may want to avoid that risk.

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