The political camps of the two most credible and talked about candidates for 2016 are engaged in a war of mutually assured destruction (MADD), and the target is our democracy. The situations are not quite comparable. Governor Christie has done more damage to himself than anyone has done to him, while Hillary Clinton faces an army of opposition researchers readying attacks on a memoir that won’t be released until Spring. If all goes according to plan, the two frontrunners will be taken down a peg or two, maybe more in Christie’s case as new “Bridgegate” revelations emerge, and voters will be left wondering if anybody in public life has the character and temperament to lead the nation.
“At this point, tearing people down seems to be the only thing our political system still knows how to do,” says William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a liberal think-tank. With two years before the primaries begin, the staying power of the contenders will be tested. New numbers released in a Quinnipiac University poll show that Christie has suffered a body blow, moving from a statistical tie against Clinton to 8 points behind. The frontrunner label may no longer apply to Christie, but his personality and the gritty allure of New Jersey politics will keep him in the spotlight.
“Coming up in New Jersey politics without getting dirty is like swimming in the Atlantic without getting wet,” says Jack Pitney, Professor of Politics at Claremont McKenna College. Pitney expects Christie will face further revelations as partisan investigators and the media pore through public records in courthouses all over Jersey. Before entering academia, Pitney worked at the Republican National Committee, where he did opposition research. He mostly combed through public records looking for juicy quotes. That was before the Internet. Today, the ease of accessing data over the Internet is the big rock candy mountain of “oppo” research. The field has grown exponentially and been so professionalized that George Washington University offers a summer course to graduate students in political science titled “The Not-So-Dark Art of Campaign Research.”
This is the province of nerds and dweebs rather than shadowy hit men, says GWU’s promotional material, and they could find Clinton an elusive subject. Scrutinized for decades, just about everything that can be found has been found. Pitney says it’s like setting out to find new information about the Roman Empire. “Her biggest problem is not so much revelations but whether by 2016 she’ll be like The X-Files in the 9th season—something that’s been going on for too long.”
Whatever the future holds, Hillary Clinton today is in such a dominant position in her party that you have to go back to Dwight Eisenhower to find a non-incumbent with a comparable hold on a party’s nomination. Asked if the primary were held today, which candidate they would support, the Quinnipiac poll found 65 percent for Clinton, 8 percent for Vice President Biden, 7 percent for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and 3 percent for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
With those numbers, if Clinton runs, it’s not clear whether anybody of any stature in the Democratic Party will show up to challenge her, “so it’s understandable that she will be getting a lot of attention early,” says Galston. “If they can take her down or scruff her up, they believe their chances of taking the White House would improve materially—and they’re right.”
“Hillary’s biggest problem is whether she’ll be like The X-Files in the 9th season—something that’s gone on too long.”
Maybe there are no new facts to unearth, but today’s politics don’t revolve so much around groundbreaking information as they do on spin and innuendo and simple repetition made possible by the influx of money from Super PACs and social-welfare organizations energized by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates on anonymous contributions. Christie may prove to be nothing more than a Beltway frontrunner, the first act in a long drama before the GOP settles on where it will be as a party, and whether it can field a candidate who can win nationally.
Clinton faces some distrust from the left, but the Democratic establishment seems determined to give her all the advantages of a successful incumbent. No serious opposition in the primaries so she can stockpile money and run a faux Rose Garden campaign, standing aside while the other party rips itself apart in a bitter primary fight. Even better, she doesn’t have to run on every element of President Obama’s record, says Norm Ornstein with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank. “It’s no big surprise they (Republicans) want to rip the bark off of her,” he says. “They want to show her as early as possible this will be a nightmare, as bad as anything she had in the White House (as First Lady), to discourage her from running.”
Driving people out of the race before it’s even begun seems like a dubious enterprise, and more likely than not to backfire. Clinton prevailed over what she once called “the vast right wing conspiracy,” and Christie, inaugurated to a second term Tuesday, stuck to his message of bipartisanship, ignoring the scandals eroding his credibility. He is counting on his opponents to overplay their hand, and a forgiving public to let him do his job as governor. President is another matter.