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August 04, 2006

Clinton The Fighter

Kevin Drum writes:

McCain unbeatable? After eight years of a Republican presidency? Not only does that sound indefensible as a general proposition, but it doesn't sound like Bill Clinton, either. He's always struck me as the ultimate fighter, the guy who never gives up and always thinks there's got to be a way to win.

People have rather weird ideas about Bill Clinton. Remember that he didn't enter the 1988 race because he worried that the Reagan revolution hadn't yet run its course. And remember, too, that his 1992 campaign was supposed to do nothing more than build his name recognition for 1996, when he could capitalize on Cuomo's inevitable loss with the "New Democrat" schtick. That Cuomo pulled out and a recession destroyed Bush changed the playing field. But Clinton, whatever his reputation, has long sought to avoid battles he couldn't win, and entered others with no plan for victory. That's different, of course, from being optimistic or determined in battles he had no choice to fight (say, impeachment). But if you need more evidence of his timidity on important issues in the face of long odds, just peer out at his second term, or his failure to reengage health care, or, or, or...

Relatedly, I'm of the increasingly minority opinion that John McCain is virtually unbeatable in a general election. I don't know if he'll make it through the Republican primary and lord knows he could lose his temper, or get caught with a naked boy, or whatever else, but I think much of the blogosphere is bafflingly sanguine about his candidacy.

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Comments

Ezra, you seem to be ignoring the comment from Chris in your previous post:

Regarding Hillary's political instincts vs. Bill's, I remember reading this paragraph from My Life, about his decision not to run for president in 1988:

Finally, Hillary was happy I didn't run because she disagreed with the conventional widsom that the Democrats were likely to win in 1988. She didn't think the Reagan Revolution had run its course and believed that, despite the Iran-Contra affair, George Bush would win as a more moderate version of Reagan. Four years later, when the prospects for victory looked much darker, with President Bush's approval ratings over 70 percent, Hillary encouraged me to run. As usual, she was right both times.
--p. 335

Which, for one thing, speaks to the tightness of the Clinton's as a unit, and the fact that both of them watch the signs and make the effort.

Second, as a number of people have noted... what's your case for McCain's unstoppability? On the right side of thing, while McCain is getting some play, he is still widely disliked. Official Washington may like him and see him as the only crdible alternative, but his immigration stance is not in line with the far right (a big sticking point), and residual distrust is still there. He's got a lot of hurdles to overcome and a number of opponents who while certainly carrying their own baggage (Romney, Allen, Giuliani, Gingrich, possibly Jeb), are not total washouts themselves. Why are you feeling so certain it's McCain?

Posted by: weboy | Aug 4, 2006 8:54:27 AM

That's interesting -- I hadn't seen that before. But it sort of backs up my point -- Clinton doesn't enter fights heedlessly. As for McCain, I just said he's likely unbeatable in the general. As stated above, I have no idea whether he'll win the primary. And I sure hope I'm wrong about his strength, he'd be a disaster.

Posted by: Ezra | Aug 4, 2006 9:04:45 AM

Relatedly, I'm of the increasingly minority opinion that John McCain is virtually unbeatable in a general election.

This is silly. Do you really think McCain's general popularity is totally unrelated to the fact that for the last six years, no one has had reason to attack him? Aside from occasional grumblings from the far right, he's been in good standing with the GOP and has been involved with just enough hyphenated bills to woo bipartisan-minded Democrats. He also hasn't faced a serious challenge to his seat in that time, and hasn't run for higher office (i.e., president). When he does, he'll have to run against a lot of very ambitious politicians who will suddenly have all the reason in the world to turn all their guns on him, and it's not clear to me at all that he'll make it through the Republican nomination (for god's sake, not only is he identified with an amnesty-esque version of immigration reform, he's identified with a version called McCain-Kennedy).

McCain is broadly popular right now because no one has had a motive to knock him off his pedestal; everyone cozies up to him precisely because he's in a safe zone. As soon as he's officially running for president in a field that will include anyone from George Allen to Sam Brownback, that will change dramatically. There's no way he survives that fight without seriously bloodying himself. And if he gets into the general across from any Democrat with a shred of antiwar credibility, the man is toast, because our troops will be in the middle of a civil war and McCain will be stuck with his "stay the course" shtick.

Posted by: Christmas | Aug 4, 2006 9:54:22 AM

Points:

I believe the original point was someone saying Hillary is actually cautious, Bill is not. This quote seems to measure up to that (and the argument over whether Bill is a fighter just came from that tangent).

Ezra said McCain would kill in the general, ceteris paribus for what his chances are in the Primary. Of course, one could say the same thing for Lieberman. I think the media could turn on McCain just as devastaingly as it turned on Clinton and Dean and Kerry and so many other of their love children, we just never got a chance to see that yet. Which doesn't mean he's not a strong candidate, but he is not some bold bipartisan media-friendly figure that no politician ahs figured out how to be before.

Posted by: Tony v | Aug 4, 2006 10:02:16 AM

The media, while favorable to McCain today, is not in his pocket. At some point, you can't keep selling your editor the same story day after day, week after week. At some point the hot story will be: why McCain can't win. It will start small. But it will grow.

Posted by: Mickeleh | Aug 4, 2006 10:14:18 AM

"Relatedly, I'm of the increasingly minority opinion that John McCain is virtually unbeatable in a general election."

McCain would be a very strong general election candidate, no doubt.

But that's not the same as being unbeatable. If the Dems nominate a strong candidate themselves, (say, Johnny Edwards), and if it's an OK year for Democrats, McCain could be taken down.

Similarly, if the Dems nominate a weaker candidate, (say, HRC), and if it's a very good year for Democrats, again McCain could lose.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 4, 2006 10:21:45 AM

It doesn't matter, as McCain won't survive the primaries. George Bush can't run again, but Rove can.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Aug 4, 2006 10:38:16 AM

"It doesn't matter, as McCain won't survive the primaries."

Maybe, but maybe not. McCain is 'next in line'. The GOP tends to reliably nominate the 'next in line'.

"George Bush can't run again, but Rove can."

I don't see any reason why Rove wouldn't support McCain. Everyone claims the Weaver-Rove feud was settled in '04, and Rove is nothing if not a pragmatist.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 4, 2006 10:44:23 AM

McCain would be hard to beat in a general election. He would have the kneejerk support of all the Republicans, plus quite a few Dems who have been bamboozled by his "maverick" shtick. And he would have the entire GOP slime machine working for him, instead of against him.

But that last is the key point. No matter who he hires from the Bush administration, the GOP slime machine will be working against him in the primary. If he goes negative, it ruins his moderate persona. If he doesn't go negative, he gets shredded by the other candidates.

Nope, it's going to be Gov. Huckleberry, I can feel it.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 4, 2006 10:46:55 AM

I don't see any reason why Rove wouldn't support McCain. Everyone claims the Weaver-Rove feud was settled in '04, and Rove is nothing if not a pragmatist.

Yeah. But Rove isn't the political god that we're supposed to believe he is. He can't guarantee either a McCain victory or defeat.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 4, 2006 10:48:42 AM

"Yeah. But Rove isn't the political god that we're supposed to believe he is."

He's not a god, but the dude is coming off a very impressive run. He won two elections - '00 and '04 - that his side had no business winning. I'm especially in awe of the '04 campaign. And while '02 was destined to be a GOP year in the wake of 9/11, Rove was responsible for some very smart moves that year too.

I respect smart generals even when they're commanding the armies of satan. And Rove is a very smart general.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 4, 2006 10:59:32 AM

I don't see any reason why Rove wouldn't support McCain. Everyone claims the Weaver-Rove feud was settled in '04, and Rove is nothing if not a pragmatist.

Rove's base is Southern Republicans (or, as I think of them, Nature's own puppy-killers). Underlying bipartisan support for McCain is a fair bit of doubt about his real inclinations. Chait's a big McCain fan because he doubts McCain's allegiance to Southern Republican (and anti-American) principles. I think there's some merit to those doubts. So, everyone assumes, do Southern Republicans--that's why people think McCain might lose the nomination in the South. That's why, as recently as a year ago, George Allen was the insider's pick for the nomination.

If McCain wins the nomination, and then the Presidency, he's going to start rebuilding the Party outside of the South--that's beneficial to him. That's really not beneficial to Rove, because his intra-party power will decrease accordingly. Ultimately, it's better for Rove that the Republicans lose elections but remain Southern-centered. (This is basically exactly the same calculation as the DLC has made, and the growing recognition of that fact is the motivation for much of the resentment of the DLC.)

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Aug 4, 2006 11:15:43 AM

And Rove is a very smart general.

Absolutely. But he actually doesn't have a lot of tricks in his bag, and he's not subtle about anything. This has worked well for him, but the best thing about Rove over the last couple of elections is the complete stupidity of the Democrats.

If the majority of top Democratic consultants weren't trying so hard for the title of Ultimate Dumbass of the World, Bush, and therefore Rove, would not have won the presidency in 2000, let alone 2004.

So I guess it is entirely possible that the GOP will win again in 2008, unless we can get someone who will tell Shrum & co. that if they're going to do so much to help Republicans, maybe they shouldn't get paid so much by Democrats.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 4, 2006 11:16:01 AM

McCain will never make it past the primaries if Giuliani enters the race. HRC's in trouble if Gore comes into the fray.

Each side seems terrified of running against an 'unstoppable' candidate from the other side who probably won't even make it to the general election.

It's shaping up to be a wild race already.

Posted by: the dreaming ape | Aug 4, 2006 11:18:09 AM

I don't know if Rove's side had no business winning in 2004 - since Rosevelt, the electoral system has favored two term Presidents, i.e. incumbency, absent a strong challenge. The mistake, I think, was for Dems to think that Kerry was a strong challenger playing a strong hand - in fact, he was rather flawed, and on national security issues, his hand was far weaker than anyone was willing to acknowledge. The fact that Rove exploited these weaknesses successfully doesn't make him a genius, merely good at his job in a rather basic, unsurprising way.

I understand that people are apprehensive - Dems have had a rough time winning elections in my lifetime. But still. The Republicans are in fantastic disarray, thei central calition is breaking down, and events are not going their way. McCain is not unstoppable, and there is a definite likelihood that he won't survive the nomination process. Even if he does, it's not clear he can win. There are a number of Democrats who could stop him, or anyone else the GOP chooses to nominate. But doing that requires a certain fundamental confidence in what we're saying and what we stand for. That's what makes me concerned, whether it's Hillary or not Hillary. If we're not prepared to stand confidently for our candidate and for our country, then we probably don't deserve to win.

Posted by: weboy | Aug 4, 2006 11:20:00 AM

He's not a god, but the dude is coming off a very impressive run. He won two elections - '00 and '04 - that his side had no business winning.

You're nuts. Any halfway-competent organ grinder should've been able to turn 2004 into a landslide after 9/11. Under Rove, Bush's approval ratings dropped steadily since the post-9/11 spike. Rove has only ever had one trick, and that's to slime the other side. He's never been able to make his side look good, which is why his guy turned into a lame duck with a 36% approval rating a year into his second term. He may be very good at throwing mud, but you can't run a successful political machine by just throwing mud. Rove and Bush have proved this.

Posted by: Christmas | Aug 4, 2006 11:23:13 AM

If McCain is so unbeatable, how come W cleaned his clock? McCain is always overestimated by the liberal elites.

Posted by: Rob W | Aug 4, 2006 11:26:45 AM

"The fact that Rove exploited these weaknesses successfully doesn't make him a genius, merely good at his job in a rather basic, unsurprising way."

Relentless competency is a form of genius.

But what I'm in awe of in the '04 campaign were decisions taken in spring '04 when Bush's numbers were really bad, and the CW was that Bush needed to take a softer position on Iraq - to admit some mistakes so the electorate would have a reason to forgive him and trust him again.

Instead, Rove took the counter-intuitive position that stonewalling on Iraq would result in Bush's numbers improving enough by fall to be able to eke out a narrow victory against a weak opponent. I thought he was dead wrong at the time, but he turned out to be absolutely right.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 4, 2006 11:30:22 AM

The media, while favorable to McCain today, is not in his pocket. At some point, you can't keep selling your editor the same story day after day, week after week. At some point the hot story will be: why McCain can't win. It will start small. But it will grow.

More likely that the editor tells you to go out and write the same damn story every day than the other way around. And the editors seem to be in the GOP establishment's pocket big time. Any of the books by Alterman, Boehlert, Wolcott point to that conclusion.

Posted by: pfc | Aug 4, 2006 11:35:15 AM

I thought he was dead wrong at the time, but he turned out to be absolutely right.

But in hindsight this turns out not to be a genius maneuver of Rove's; it's simply his default stance. His advice to Bush has contistently been to never concede mistakes on anything - and as Bush's numbers really did get bad in his second term, this really, really hurt him. Rove doesn't have instinct; he has one mode which he's stuck in all the time. It worked for him in the first term, before public recognition of Bush disasters had grown to a crisis point, but in his second term widespread acknowledgment of administration fuckups far outstripped any gains Bush could make by showing "resolve."

Posted by: Christmas | Aug 4, 2006 11:46:22 AM

From the Corner:

In response to my McCain piece . Still along the lines of: "Count me as still another conservative who will NOT vote for McCain. I simply despise the Democrats, but do not think they'd be worse than him."

People are kidding themselves if they think McCain's getting out of the primaries.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Aug 4, 2006 12:35:45 PM

I don't know; I look at John McCain, and I see a little bit of Bob Dole. Everyone loved Dole in 1994, when he carried a resume very similar to McCain's; bipartisan cred, wicked wit, media friendly, potentially unbeatable after the 1994 Republican revolution, hostility from conservatives, and a history of losing in the Republican primary.

And then he got crushed.

Posted by: Rob | Aug 4, 2006 12:56:19 PM

If McCain is so unbeatable, how come W cleaned his clock?

Rob's right, Ezra. If you think McCain is unbeatable, you have to explain why he lost in 2000. He was extremely popular in the country at the time, more so than he is now. The Republicans have spent the intervening years attacking McCain. All of the Republican voters I know scowl at the mention of him and would never vote for him. Do you see a groundswell somewhere else in the country?

On the other hand he's lost some of his luster in Democratic opinion since he's so closely associated with Bush's war in Iraq and has been reaching out to Falwell and Robertson. Democrats were also indifferent in 2000 while the Republicans were desperate for the win. In 2008 the situation will be reversed.

Unlike 1988, nobody thinks that the Bush Revolution hasn't run it's course. The Democrats best chance for a win is 2008 and if Hillary wants it, she'll run.

Posted by: Mike | Aug 4, 2006 2:11:08 PM

McCain is unbeatable in 2008.

The GOP establishment, including the religious right will support him. They just want to win and McCain is the most likely to win on the GOP side. Look at his rivals; Allen, Frist, the crazy guy from Kansas..........they are all beatable by a reasonable Democratic nominee. Only McCain looks formidable. So the religious right, Right Wing Noise Machine, Big Money Donors........they will all support McCain.

The mainstream media, including the so called liberal pundits like Richard Cohen, David Broder love McCain. They will do everything in their power to trash McCain opponents in the primary and then in the general election. Do not underestimate the power of the media. They destroyed Gore in 2000.

So McCain will have a united party behind him, truckloads of cash, an adoring press corps..........the combination is tough to beat.

Posted by: Nan | Aug 4, 2006 2:16:21 PM

"If you think McCain is unbeatable, you have to explain why he lost in 2000."

Because, y'know, Ezra was, like, talking about the general election, while you're talking about, y'know, the primaries...

Other than that, outstanding point.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 4, 2006 2:16:24 PM

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