Women

04.03.13

Be Afraid, GOP: Hillary Clinton Is Back and She Will Beat You in 2016

And her return should strike fear in the hearts of Republicans everywhere. Robert Shrum on why Hillary will prevail in 2016.

She's back. And it seems like she never left at all.

After a pause to rest and recharge—and she apparently recharges swiftly—Hillary Clinton reemerged to a rapturous welcome at the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards last night, to be followed on Friday by a keynote speech at the Women in the World Summit sponsored by Newsweek and The Daily Beast. She came to the first event to pay tribute to Melanne Verveer, her former chief of staff, assistant secretary of State, and a pioneer of  women's rights across the world—or as Clinton put it, one of "those amazing women who could not be denied."

The phrase aptly applies to her own prospects for 2016 as the amazing candidate who, if she chooses to run, almost certainly cannot be denied:  the nomination or the presidency itself. Outside the Kennedy Center in Washington, the site of the Vital Voices event, a sign-waving crowd chanted: "Ready for Hillary." Almost simultaneously, a new political action committee was launched to promote her next race for the White House—and it promptly attracted 60,000 Twitter and Facebook followers.

She is far ahead in polls of Democratic primary voters. Remarkably, in a general election match-up, she leads Jeb Bush by 9 percent and Marco Rubio by 11 in their home state of Florida—and perhaps most stunningly, a PPP survey finds her ahead of Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the incarnadined Lone Star State.

All this sets the stage for extended kabuki theater about Hillary's intentions. She has no reason to rush in from the wings early on: her financial backers and fervent partisans will wait; her strength among women, who think it's time to elect one of their own, won't wane but intensify. She doesn't need an all-out, three-year long march to the Iowa caucuses. Now we have heard something like this before. But there's no Barack Obama out there to challenge her. And she won't make the decisive mistake she did in 2008, when her campaign misread the primary electorate and malpositioned her as a candidate of restoration in a year of change.

And all of this does something else: it sends the chill wind of a potential 16 years of Democrats in the White House, along with a Supreme Court where the justices actually do justice, through the fevered right-wing swamps of the Clinton-haters and the Obama-abominators who see the white-male dominated America of their imagining fading away. My colleague, friend, and podcast  sparring partner David Frum is certainly not among them—instead he's offered the GOP perceptive counsel, fortunately spurned so far and perhaps indefinitely, about how to remake the party in substance as well as style.  Now, however, on CNN and in The Daily Beast, he has weighed in with advice for Democrats and Clinton herself: She would be "a mistake for 2016." It is a provocative, fresh, and seemingly well-argued piece—but it's just plain wrong.

First, Frum contends that with Hillary, the Democrats would be repeating the Republican error of nominating the "next in line"— the man, and they were all men—who finished second in the previous round of presidential primaries. From Bob Dole to John McCain to Mitt Romney, they proved to be lousy nominees. Democrats, on the other hand, "prefer newcomers."

In any case, there's hardly room for doubt that as the nominee she would have triumphed over McCain in November—and maybe by a bigger margin than Obama's.

With respect to both parties, this is selective history. The GOP does tend to pick "the next in line"—but they're not invariably losers. Both George Bush the first and Ronald Reagan had run unsuccessfully for the nomination before—in Reagan's case, twice, in 1968 and 1976. And among Democrats, John F. Kennedy was in effect the next in line, with a wide lead in primary polls for the entire four years after his electrifying 1956 convention appearance to concede his narrow, last- minute defeat in an open roll call for the vice-presidential nod; that outcome was a blessing, and not very much disguised.

Even Frum's example of Democrats anointing the favorite—Al Gore in 2000—militates against his case: Gore was elected, just not inaugurated after the Supreme Court descended into a bipartisan ward committee. But other than that ill-fated election, Democrats have settled on newcomers—in 1976, 1992, and 2004—when there was no clear or commanding frontrunner. And 2008 was an exception precisely because the frontrunner faltered; Barack Obama, for all his gifts, wouldn't have prevailed if Hillary Clinton had campaigned on a call for change—and if her campaign had paid elementary attention to the mechanics of delegate-selecting caucuses. So she carried the popular vote in the Texas primary, but mismanaged to cede the majority of delegates to her opponent. In any case, there's hardly room for doubt that as the nominee she would have triumphed over McCain in November—and maybe by a bigger margin than Obama's.

Next, Frum complains about Clinton's age. She will be 69 in 2016; parties should "avoid reaching back to politicians of prior generations." Again I think of Reagan—who was, well, 69 in 1980—and who had been on the national stage for 16 years, ever since his own electrifying, nationally televised political debut speaking for Barry Goldwater far more powerfully than the candidate ever spoke for himself. It would be difficult to rationalize why Clinton's 24-year visibility, since 1992, will be a difference in kind and not just in time.

But what about the prospect that a Hillary nomination would, in Frum's words," bring forward… the quarrel over the ethical standards of the Clinton White House"? Give me a break. The Lewinsky scandal did hurt Gore in 2000; voters then had a case of cognitive dissonance—happy with the Clinton prosperity, but receptive to W's claim that he would "restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office." But that was long ago, and Bill Clinton is viewed very differently today. In truth, if he could run in 2016, he would very probably be elected to his third term. Moreover, the Lewinsky episode didn't hurt Hillary; Americans sympathized with her, and admired her strength. And don't bring up Whitewater, the phony Hillary-bashing saga virtually no one can remember; every GOP breath expended here would be a diversion from issues that matter to voters.

Frum appears to sense the difficulty, so he turns to Bill Clinton's $89 million in post-presidential speaking fees—"many … from foreign sources." Do Democrats really want to spend time defending that? There is no evidence, none, that any of Bill's appearances have involved anything improper. An attack on them would be dismissed as a smear against both a former and a future president who have been inoculated against such charges after being recklessly traduced by the right for decades. And there is a more relevant, more determinative question: do Republicans really want to spend their time on another concocted scandal rather than focusing on the economy, education, or Social Security and Medicare? (Well, maybe they would be better off avoiding the latter two topics.)

The politics of personal destruction is the last refuge of losers. Witness the impact in 2008, when Obama was assailed about his pastor and his alleged ties to a domestic terrorist. Bill Clinton's speaking fees are mighty impressive monetarily, but they would be politically de minimis in 2016. The GOP would be wise to heed Frum's better admonition to move beyond its "self-defeating rage."

Finally, my friend and this would-be Democratic strategist writes that a Hillary abdication would open the way to a Democratic "renewal"—a debate between the defenders of the Obama legacy and candidates who believe in Bill Clinton's more moderate approach. Inside the party, no major presidential possibility would focus on that disjunction, let alone accept it. Every one of them, Hillary included, will look to the future—not to repudiate the president, but to build on what he has achieved. To do otherwise would be political suicide in the primaries. It's the other party that needs to renew himself,  to find a  path out of a fundamentalist wilderness on social issues, to reach the young, women, minorities, and Hispanics—and above all, stop looking and acting as if favors government of the privileged,  by the privileged, and for the privileged.

The GOP may not transform itself until it's beaten again and again—for example, by Hillary Clinton in two successive presidential races. And if she walks away from 2016, Democrats will not rend themselves ideologically. Indeed, the odds-on choice then and the probable nominee will be Joe Biden. He's hardly in a position, or hardly disposed, to run against the Obama-Biden administration—and anyone who does will lose to him early on.

I can hear Frum's rejoinder: Biden will be 73. But what will count is vigor, not age. And Biden's performance in 2012, in the debate with Paul Ryan and in the critical swing states—and then in the fiscal cliff negotiations—robustly validates Robert Kennedy's observation that “youth is not a time of life, but a state of mind."

Biden appeared at the Vital Voices event too, where he told the cheering crowd: "There's no woman like Hillary Clinton." He's right, and I more than doubt he'll run if she does. Others may, but he's too astute a politician to take the plunge.

So David, Hillary Clinton won't "inherit the Democratic nomination and the presidency as an estate in reversion." She's earned it on her own. I'm convinced she will do it. And then she'll win it.

Yes, she's back—and Republicans should be very, very afraid.