Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and What Could Have Been
The two candidates who were nearly president find themselves in very different political places now, in this time of Trump.
If Hillary Clinton had won the election, she’d be under investigation by Republican Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, for whatever stray scandals he could find, and Democrats would be bracing for a midterm disaster in November, plunging them deeper into the congressional wilderness.
If Clinton were President, nobody would be talking about Democrats maybe taking back the senate majority. The debate would be over how close the Republicans will get to 60 votes, a veto-proof majority, after picking up seats in the midterms.
The Democrats’ good fortune hit home for me when MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki poring over his election map said that the best thing that happened to the 10 Democrats running for reelection to the senate in red states is Donald Trump.
With Trump in the White House, Jennifer Duffy with the non-partisan Cook Political Report has moved five (Indiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, West Virginia and Florida) of the 10 red-state senate seats into the toss-up column. .
“If Clinton were president, she’d be subject to the midterm curse, where the party in power is destined to lose seats,” says Duffy. “Trey Gowdy would not be retiring, and the House would not be in play.”
As for Clinton herself, facing the constant drumbeat of fake scandal and the obstruction of a solidly Republican Congress, she’d likely be a one-term president. Winning a third term for the party in power after a popular two-term president is hard enough; a fourth is an even steeper climb, as George H.W. Bush can attest.
New York Times writer Amy Chozick reports in her new book, “Chasing Hillary,” that when Clinton was told she had lost the 2016 race, she said, “I knew it. I knew this would happen to me. They were never going to let me be president.”
Pinning down who “they” is gets tricky. There are lots of candidates, including herself, Chozick concludes, as a member of a rapacious media focused on equalizing the flaws between the two major candidates, and then waking up the day after and realizing the consequences of that false equivalency.
The irony is that Clinton, by losing her place as the first woman president, is arguably doing more for her party, and for women’s political aspirations, than if she had made it to the Oval Office. There are a record number of women newly engaged in politics, many of them clones of Clinton—college-educated suburban women energized by Clinton’s loss in a way that her presidency might never have achieved in today’s harsh partisan climate.
Democrats enter the midterm cycle with high energy, and a realistic chance to regain a foothold in Washington by taking back the House and maybe even the senate. Clinton has vowed not to be driven out of the arena, and her political group, Onward Together, mentors progressive organizations. She is still in demand among the faithful, but there is grumbling about the fundraising appeals that never cease, and there’s no clamor for her to run again for anything.
Yet even as facts emerge about Russian hacking and how it tilted the election against her, Clinton herself is not quite a sympathetic figure. There’s no heartwarming documentary to show what Clinton was up against the way the 2014 documentary “Mitt” offered a behind-the-scenes view of the candidate and his family during the 2012 election, when Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama, coupled with scenes from the 2008 primaries, when Romney lost to John McCain.
The New York Times called it “a glimpse into the private pain of a highly public failure.”
The filmmaker, Greg Whitely, a fellow Mormon, shadowed the Romneys with their permission. The documentary ends with the couple taking a cab from the airport, sans Secret Service, and Romney carrying their bags into the living room. The defeated candidate comes across as likeable and much more self-aware than the two-dimensional rich guy the country saw.
He notes at one point in the film that he spent part of his fortune building the brand of a moderate Republican successfully governing Massachusetts, a blue state, and that brand helped sink his candidacy in ’08 in the increasingly hard right primaries against McCain. “When this is over,” he says, “people will know what I stand for – the flipping Mormon.”
Romney is not a heroic figure. He is a shape-shifter when it comes to policy, from his creation of Romneycare in Massachusetts to declaring in 2012 as the Republican nominee that he is “fiercely conservative.”
Yet he will almost certainly be the next senator from Utah even if he is at odds with his party’s base. “If you’re a Trump supporter, you should still be for Mitt Romney so the party base doesn’t shrink anymore,” says former GOP Congressman Vin Weber.
Why is Romney being greeted as a returning statesman while Clinton is still something of an outcast? Some of it is gender, though with Clinton even that is skewed by the fact that she has her own category. As Chozick notes in her book, voters would often say they would vote for a woman, but “not that woman.”
Clinton has lots of baggage, not all of her own making, and certainly not all fair, while Romney has no baggage in Utah, says Duffy. “He’s not from there, he has a house there, but he’s not from there. They remember him as the person who got the Olympics turned around, and a member in good standing of the church.”
His son Josh and his family live in Salt Lake, and Romney is now showing up at Utah Jazz games. “The hope is that he will be a statesmanlike voice able to work across the aisle,” says Duffy.
Though Romney failed to get his party’s endorsement at a state convention last month heavily populated by libertarians, he is expected to easily win a June primary and polls show him well ahead of his Democratic rival, Jenny Wilson, who was one of his deputies during his successful leadership of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. She had counted on running against incumbent Orrin Hatch, who decided to retire.
Republicans thought Romney should have won against Obama in 2012, but six years later, he’s got absolution and a likely senate seat. Everybody thought Clinton would win in 2016, and come November, the sting of her loss should be partly atoned for with a reversal of fortune for Democrats that could never have happened if she’d been in the White House.