Hillary Clinton was the clear front-runner for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination even before Barack Obama’s series of foreign policy gaffes left voters wondering if the man who said he would bomb Pakistan was ready for the top job.
So, what does matter in a presidential campaign? It is perhaps best to break the race into two different legs: One, the nomination to represent the Democratic or Republican party, and, two, the general election against the other party’s candidate. The first requires tons of campaign money, and the second demands experience in governing.
Money gets a candidate through the ups and downs of a campaign, like a bad showing in a debate or at a primary or caucus; but more importantly it enhances the candidate’s credibility and reflects the level of faith the public has in his or her chances to win the nomination. It is therefore no paradox that even though Clinton is leading the polls, Obama has raised more cash. The fact is that Clinton is her party’s most electable candidate, but she is going to have a hard time winning the nomination from her own party. Democrats really don’t like her.
Sometimes it is hard to know how she is leading given that the rank and file of the party is looking for just about any excuse to not vote for her. Many dislike her because of her support for the Iraq war; and others because she has jumped sides and decided not to support the war any longer. To them, she is too much of a “political animal” who will do anything to get elected. It hardly needs to be said that this is precisely the point — the job of an American politician is to get elected in order to lead, not to stand off on the sidelines with beautiful scruples.
There are scores of well-educated middle-class professional women who condemn Hillary because she didn’t walk away from her husband after his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky was exposed — a truly bizarre rationale for Hillary-hating. Why would an ambitious politician like Clinton walk away from what she effectively made the world’s second-most important job — spinning the man who spins the globe — once she found out what she had already known anyway, that her husband was a philanderer?
And then there are tons of men from ostensibly liberal quarters of academia and the news media who also despise her, for no other reason it seems than that she reminds them of their high-achieving partners, wives and girlfriends. In sum, it is hard not to conclude that Hillary is mostly disliked simply for the fact that she is a woman. That conviction is hardly allayed by the fact that the main reason Democrats don’t like her is that she seems to them too conservative, too Republican; in other words, she is too much like her husband Bill, one of the most popular presidents in recent memory who in retirement is now enjoying the Teflon-status usually reserved for pop-stars and fashion models.
It is an interesting fact of American politics that no US Senator has been elected president since John F. Kennedy. Everyone since then has either been elected from the Vice Presidency or from the post of Governor. In part this habit speaks to the general distaste ordinary Americans have for Washington insiders, but it also indicates that voters demand a high-level of competence from their leaders. It is not enough to have a name, a pretty face and good hair — they have to have run something first, like a state.
Bill Clinton not only managed a state, he also grasped the essential lesson of American politics after the Reagan revolution — the liberal status quo is unelectable because Americans say they want centrists. What’s curious is that from a centrist position a president can get away with almost any liberal initiative imaginable. Consider George W. Bush, a Republican, whose war in Iraq to bring democracy to the Middle East is an idea derived from the concept of liberal interventionism, even if almost every American liberal is against Bush’s application of it in Baghdad.
Liberals, the Democratic party’s base, seem to have forgotten Clinton’s example. Either that or they are afraid to lead. Clinton, a woman who exercised her political instincts at a very high level while she inhabited the White House alongside her husband, is not afraid to win and she knows how to govern. She will win the nomination because at some point Democrats will have to recognize the race is not between Clinton and the ideal liberal candidate who will represent all their best hopes and dreams and undo the Bush legacy, but between the Democratic candidate and the Republican one.
Right now it looks as if Hillary’s opponent is shaping up to be former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, best known for his courage under fire during the 9/11 attacks. Never mind that both Clinton and Giuliani are New Yorkers and thus represent a Northeastern city that generates more suspicion than Washington; voters on the extreme right and left sides of the ideological spectrum will be shut out next fall. Both candidates are aggressive on national security issues, Giuliani a bit more so, and both are liberal on social issues, like abortion. If Democratic voters can recognize the new political reality in time — a consolidation of the center thanks to Reagan, Bill Clinton and 9/11 — Hillary might just become the first woman leader of the free world.