The non-race for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, all but unprecedented in non-incumbent contests, is confounding to journalists and pundits, to the quoteratti whose words sustain their output, and to the partisan spinners whose mission is to bend the arc of the story. But the political cycle—-and the 24-hour news cycle—has its own relentless rhythms. If you’re one of the boys, and now girls, on the bus, even if it hasn’t rolled into Iowa yet, it’s hard to cover a foregone conclusion. If you’re a Republican, then just maybe Hillary Clinton, the certain nominee if she runs, can be damaged or deterred.
If you’re on the left, maybe you can nudge her ideologically. Or you can just come up with a fresh take, attention-getting and perhaps friendly, even if it’s implausible and unpersuasive, an unavailing piece of unsolicited advice.
All this will happen all the way until Hillary announces—and will mutate into variant strains until the day she’s inaugurated.
One recurrent meme is that she isn’t liberal enough to prevail in the primaries—a wish dressed up as analysis or a weirdly poll-uninformed argument. (I won’t even link to the relevant surveys here; in virtually all of them, she’s the choice of two-thirds of Democrats and more.)
A favorite GOP pollster, Scott Rasmussen, typifies the wishing on the right: “The party is leaving [Hillary Clinton] behind as it becomes more liberal.” There is “reason to believe that she will not be the… nominee in 2016.” The analysis may not be hardheaded, and certainly isn’t based on hard facts. Instead it seems desperately hopeful on the part of Republicans who can read the bottom lines of general-election polls—and know that despite their Benghazi-bashing of Hillary, she leads every conceivable Republican nominee, nationally and in battleground states, by generally daunting margins. She beats Jeb Bush by 8 points in Florida, and the state’s Sen. Marco Rubio by 12.
Clinton’s presumed ideological shortcomings have also been cited, and recited, by a number of progressives who would rather be further left then elect a president. Last November, The New Republic trumpeted Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “the probable face of the [anti-Hillary] insurgency“ and ventured that “the populists are likely to win.”
Although Warren has signed a letter urging Clinton to run, the notion that she or someone else on the left could challenge the former Secretary of State, and maybe prevail, persists in journalistic musings as well as the liberal blogosphere. That someone, writes one progressive, could and should be independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders: “Clinton could otherwise coast [to victory] on centrist stances.“ Or what about “other liberal and populist prospects,“ The Nation asks, “such as Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer“?
No one on the list, even Elizabeth Warren, matches the pre-2008 stature of Barack Obama; he hardly came out of nowhere to confront and confound Clinton. He was a soaring star from the moment he finished his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Moreover, Hillary’s support in the polling two years before she ran the last time was at 33 percent, just about half of what her lead is today. And in second place, at 15 percent, was… Obama.
It’s not just that her position is now so formidable; the prospect or call for an ideologically pure challenger is based on a flawed premise. Hillary won’t be a purist, but she will run as a progressive.
First, she actually is—with her politics sensibly tempered by pragmatism—but so were FDR and JFK’s. Second, she’s smart—and she knows that it would be a mistake to create an opening for a potential primary opponent. She did that in 2008 by campaigning initially as a candidate of restoration, not change—and by neglecting to organize in caucus states. She won’t misread the Democratic landscape again.
Last week, Clinton—that is, Bill Clinton—sent an unmistakable signal about the direction of his wife’s 2016 race in a speech at Georgetown University reasserting his own progressive bona fides. He is plainly aware of, and annoyed by, a critique of Hillary that, as Rasmussen put it, is reinforced by a purported “repudiation” from the party’s rising populist forces of Clinton’s “more centrist approach.” So Bill’s claim to have been an agent of economic justice reflects not only a determination to secure his own past, but to safeguard the Clinton future.
It also reflects reality, even if Tim Noah is right that the former president overstated his case. Clinton pointed to his 1992 slogan: “Put People First.“ He could have quoted from the strategy memos catalogued in the Newsweek book Quest for the Presidency 1992. On March 15th of that year, Paul Begala, James Carville, and George Stephanopoulos described the campaign’s fundamental message: We are running against those who care “only” about “corporations,” who “think we need another across-the-board capital gains tax cut.” Or look at the pollster Stan Greenberg’s June 18th distillation of the Clinton argument: “America is in trouble because government is failing ordinary people and stacking the deck in favor of the rich.” And then there was a phrase that remarkably pre-figures today’s politics: “Government is delivering for the top 1%.”
Yes, Bill Clinton was “a different kind of Democrat”—for welfare reform and the death penalty, willing, even eager, to criticize the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Yes, as president, he would sign the Defense of Marriage Act, now declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and disclaimed even before that by Clinton himself. And yes, in 1996, he would temper his rhetoric, triangulating his path to reelection.
But results count, too; indeed they count far more. And in terms of fairness, a word he studiously avoided in his time of triangulation, Clinton’s results were impressive and progressive—even though Bush II would reverse many of the achievements while converting the Clinton surplus into record deficits.
As Clinton explained at Georgetown, during his tenure, income growth was greater for the poorest than the wealthiest fifth of Americans. Nearly 8 million people were lifted out of poverty, compared to just 77,000 under Ronald Reagan. Clinton quadrupled the earned income tax credit. He presided over the preternatural creation of 30 million new jobs—and the sharpest rise in median incomes in a generation.
There were less favorable results too. The top 1% did almost as well as in the Reagan years. And Clinton did sign a capital-gains tax cut; as he said, it was part of a deal with the GOP Congress that yielded major budget increases for education and the passage of CHIP—the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Was Clinton being defensive? Shrewdly so. There is no political leader in memory so capable of turning the defensive into a potent offense.
Remember his master class of the speech on the Obama record at the 2012 Democratic Convention. He was clearing the decks for the president who had defeated Hillary in the 2008 primaries. Now he is clearing the decks for her. So be ready for Hillary as a fighter for economic fairness in 2016—and for reverberations of the 1992 Clinton message.
There was another piece of Hillary commentary this week which probably won’t become a meme. Tina Brown, the former editor in chief of The Daily Beast, penned a column here advising Hillary to go straight to a kind of “post-presidency” and skip the intermediate unpleasantness of campaigning, governing, and enduring “the chronic negativity of the ladies and gentlemen of the press.”
The column was original, ingenious, arresting—and wrong. Here’s why. Brown hymned the glories of the post-presidency as a “win-win” uniquely available to Hillary even if she never commands the Oval Office. You can get “money, Nobels… celebrity for any cause or hobbyhorse….”
But this isn’t just about Hillary Clinton; what’s at stake is the future of the country. Brown preemptively replied by citing the “gridlock“ that dooms a president to “paltry results” and personal disappointment.
Well, there was nothing paltry about Obamacare or rescuing the country from an oncoming depression. There is nothing paltry about averting a Republican victory that could deprive tens of millions of health coverage—and that is a cause, a hobbyhorse if you will, about which Hillary Clinton deeply cares. There is nothing paltry about fighting the economic inequality of massive tax cuts at the top—or in picking the next round of Supreme Court justices who will determine, perhaps for the next half century, the future of civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights.
Of course, there are other Democrats who could carry the standard in 2016. Thus Maureen Dowd picked up Brown’s point and amplified it, admonishing President Obama for “encourag[ing] the view of Hillary as the presumptive nominee over his unfailingly loyal vice president, Joe Biden.”
Biden would be the clear favorite if Hillary didn’t run. But Barack Obama is just recognizing the realities. This Clinton won’t be denied by her own party on the basis of a purist, parsed out, and phony test of her progressive credentials. Hillary won’t walk away from history; she will run to make history. She’s not retiring to be an ersatz ex-president before she becomes the next president of the United States.