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Jewish World Review June 20, 2003 / 20 Sivan, 5763

Michael Barone

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Consumer Reports

Yes, she's running for president. Is that good for the Dems? |
There is not much mystery about the political ambition or political strategy of Hillary Rodham Clinton. She wants to be president. She ran for senator in New York in 2000 because the job would make her a more plausible candidate for president and because she preferred being a senator to being a former first lady. She journeyed methodically to all 62 counties in New York on a "listening tour" and learned about the special problems of upstate New York. Upstaters, like most Americans, love to be visited by celebrities, and her travels enabled her--as similar travels enabled Robert Kennedy in 1964--to win a near-majority in usually Republican upstate, which, together with her big majority in Democratic New York City, resulted in a solid statewide victory.

In the Senate, Mrs. Clinton has proceeded shrewdly and methodically. She has worked hard, avoided the spotlight, raised large sums for fellow Democrats, and worked on a bipartisan basis with many Republicans. Just last Thursday she held a press conference with Montana Republican Conrad Burns, a former farm radio broadcaster, in support of their E9-1-1 bill. She is an overwhelming favorite to win re-election in New York in 2006. Rudolph Giuliani, who could defeat her, has shown no interest in serving in the Senate. And in all the time that senators have been popularly elected, no incumbent Democratic senator from New York has ever been defeated.

Sen. Clinton has made no move to run for president in 2004; evidently she has calculated that she and other Democrats have little chance at beating George W. Bush. Of course she denies that she has decided to run in 2008, and she will surely say that whoever is the Democratic nominee in 2004 has a real chance of being elected. These untruths are not evidence of special mendaciousness but harmless white lies required by the conventions of American politics. Of her ambition there can be little doubt. The most sensitive and convincing (though not friendly) portrait of her, by the late Barbara Olson in "Hell to Pay," shows a woman determined to wield political power from her days in college and law school. She has been working toward this goal for 35 years now. She is not going to give up when the highest prize seems within reach.

But does the Democratic Party want to tie its fortunes to Sen. Clinton? Polling suggests she is in a strong position to win the Democratic nomination. When she is included in polls for 2004, she routinely wins between 40% and 45% of the votes, far ahead of any of the declared candidates. Most likely those numbers will be about the same at this stage in the 2008 cycle. Democrats in recent years have been eager to ditch defeated nominees--the able and widely respected Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis with his 46% of the vote, Al Gore with his popular vote plurality--and a defeated 2004 nominee is unlikely to get a second chance. But Democrats have been stubbornly faithful to the Clintons. In 2008, some lesser-known candidate could come out of nowhere in the caucuses and primaries and overtake her. But it doesn't seem very likely.

As a general-election candidate, she is less than a sure thing. In an ABC News poll 53% said they did not want her to run for president. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed her trailing George W. Bush 53% to 40%. Her enthusiasts might dismiss this as due to Mr. Bush's current strength, but the fact is that 100% know her and 60% are not supporting her. She ran 5% behind Al Gore in New York in 2000; if she ran 5% behind him nationally, she would win 43% of the vote--not enough to win absent a second Perot candidacy. She remains one of the most polarizing figures ever in American politics. In 14 Gallup polls taken between December 1999 and June 2003, the percentage expressing negative feelings about her has ranged between 39% and 53% and averages 45%--very high negatives, far higher than any Republican nominee is likely to have going into the race. This makes it hard for her to maximize the Democratic vote in a year when the Democrats will not be, as they were in 1996 and 2000, the incumbent party in a time of apparent peace and apparent prosperity. And in those years the Democratic presidential candidates won only 49% and 48% of the vote.

Many Democrats, focusing on Bill Clinton's job ratings from 1996 through 2000, take the view that the Clinton presidency was overwhelmingly popular. But Mr. Clinton's personal standing after the Monica Lewinsky affair became public was overwhelmingly negative, and his wife (despite her widely disbelieved claims in her recent book that she believed his denial of involvement with Ms. Lewinsky) carries some of that baggage. Moreover, much of Mr. Clinton's popularity was due to the perception that he was a "third way" Democrat, supporting free trade, welfare reform and Social Security reform. But since he left office, Democrats have almost unanimously rejected those stands; it is as if the "third way" never existed.

Sen. Clinton does claim from time to time to be a "third way" Democrat, and perhaps she will construct a "third way" platform for 2008. But in her previous period of sway over public policy, when she was superintending the administration's health-care financing bill in 1993 and 1994, she took quite a different course. The consequences for her party were disastrous. When Mr. Clinton took office in 1993, Democrats had big majorities in both houses of Congress and among governors. They lost those majorities in 1994 and, except in the Senate for 18 months, have not got them back.

Democrats would be unwise to give up entirely on their chances in 2004; as the Clintons showed in 1992, great turnabouts in politics are possible. But if 2004 turns out as most people suspect, Democrats must decide if their psychic investment in the Clintons, and in Hillary Rodham Clinton as an icon of feminist success, justifies nominating a candidate with her electoral weakness. Democrats exulted when Bill Clinton seemed to be paying no price for his personal shortcomings in the 1992 and 1996 elections, and in the impeachment controversy. But nothing in politics is free; there is only some question about when you pay the price. Democrats may end up paying the price for Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky, Whitewater and Travelgate, in 2008.

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Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone