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September 17, 2005

Why Hillary Will Lose

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

The old CW on Hillary's presidential aspirations was that they'd be crushed under her liberal reputation. The "socialized medicine" attacks on her health care reform plan stuck to her more than they stuck to Bill. And while Bill's upbringing and red-state governorship made him acceptable to Southern regionalists, Hillary's Chicago roots and New York Senate seat marked her as someone from the strange liberal cities that many small-town folk still regard as foreign to their way of life.

The new CW is that she's moving to the center and leaving the old liberal reputation behind. She supports the Defense of Marriage Act, repositions herself on abortion, and has an incomprehensible position on flag burning that allows her to vote for a ban. But I doubt that she's actually gained any lasting political support through these moves. A candidate just coming onto the political scene might use these positions to get a genuine reputation as a moderate on the issues, which could play into any number of attractive political identities. But given Hillary's history and the way her moves are being analyzed by the press, her new reputation will be that of an unprincipled opportunist -- a reputation that has, in one way or another, defeated our last two presidential candidates.

They said Gore was a serial exaggerator who would make up anything to win; they said Kerry was a flip-flopper whose positions shifted with the political winds. While people identify with and vote for leaders who share their values, there's no identifying with opportunism. The current understanding of Hillary's positions is one that plays straightaway into charges that she's just saying whatever will help her get elected in 2008. Perhaps it's somewhat overblown -- this bit from Media Matters argues that she's not actually changing her positions that much. But perception here matters more than reality, and Media Matters documents the ubiquity of perceptions that Hillary is making opportunistic moves.

Every one of our other 2008 primary possibilities -- save the hapless John Kerry -- has a reasonably well-defined political identity, and staying true to this identity will do a lot to avoid charges of opportunism. Wes Clark is the General, and he can present himself as personally concerned with good national defense and foreign policy. Russ Feingold is the Liberal, and while this has limited appeal, he'll avoid charges of opportunism as long as he just goes out there and does his lefty thing. I'm guessing that Mark Warner will present himself as the Governor, a competent executive who knows how to make a government work efficiently. John Edwards, the Populist, probably has the most firm identity of them all. Who is Hillary? I'm worried that she's the Opportunist.

September 17, 2005 in Election 2008 | Permalink


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That's because she is the opportunist.

Please, God, anyone but Hilary in '08!

Posted by: Matt_C | Sep 17, 2005 5:44:21 PM

What you say is true, but I differ on the Feingold point. I think people will buy into him as a reformer, and his appeal won't actually be that limited.

But I agree that Hilary looks like an opportunist, just like Kerry did, and may get the primary but will definitely lose to the slime machine and to some steely-eyed idiot on the GOP ticket.

Posted by: loser | Sep 17, 2005 6:07:45 PM

I agree with that. I was listening online to a This American Life show from '96 on the conventions, and what struck me is that even then there were complaints that Democrats didn't stand for anything. I think her present positioning plays into that charge. Worse yet, I think later re-positioning - either no Democrat is going to be able to maintain his prior obeisance to Bush, or we're losing '08 anyway - is going to reinforce that image. The electorate might dismiss the repositioning as evidence if it happened now; but in two and a half years, when several other Democrats and some Republicans will be farther from Bush than her, it's just going to look opportunistic.

The pessimist in me says that party leaders will give her the slot to throw away, anyway.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Sep 17, 2005 6:15:22 PM

Neil, I disagree on two points.

First: Hillary's flag-burning position, while I don't like it, is completely defencible. Yes to an anti-flag-burning law; no to screwing with the constitution. It's even intellectually consistent: don't mess with the flag; don't mess with the constitution; America, fuck yeah! It was a similar position to that most Dems took on Defence of Marriage vs. the constitutional ban. I think signing DOMA was a terrible thing for Clinton to do, but not blanket terrible: after that, he and other Dems could say "it's done. We don't need more". That's what they did and they had some red-state authority to do it. Without DOMA, the hate amendment might well have passed.

Second: while I don't support her, I disagree that Hillary is unusually unelectable (you'll hate me for this, but I expect she's more electable than Edwards...duck and run!). The reason is that the country is just so polarized. The 2000 and 2004 elections were the most partisan in our history, 2004 more so, with historically high partisan loyalty and virtual statis. The big difference was that in 2004, fewer white married women voted against their husbands (because, IMO, when people are clued in and excited about politics, it's harder to do so.) In 2008, I don't see a de facto reason why those women won't swing back to support the more moderate, tolerant candidate they prefer but are scared because of national security reasons to vote for. (And Hillary would not run as culturally clueless a campaign as Kerry.)

We complain about opportunism, but the real definition in American politics is partisanship; people will see what they want to see. And HRC's advantage is her partisan associations. That will make the Republicans foam and the Tim Russerts make idiots of themselves, but if the campaign is smart, they can turn that to their advantage. I don't necessarily think she'll run (and hope not) but if she does, her partisan associations will propel her through the primary. The party leaders won't have to do much to make that happen. Barring something big or a major third party centrist canadidate, the general election will be close once again. But I can't say whether Hillary would come out on top or on the bottom.

Posted by: tlaura | Sep 17, 2005 6:40:40 PM

First: Hillary's flag-burning position, while I don't like it, is completely defencible. Yes to an anti-flag-burning law; no to screwing with the constitution.

No, this position amounts to little more than ludicrous grandstanding hiding itself behind constitution-fetishization. Hillary's position is this: yes, we should ban burning the flag, but no, we shouldn't pass a flag burning amendment. Well, if it's so important to ban burning the flag, then why the hell shouldn't we pass the amendment? Hillary falls back on the tired old saw that "Amending the constitution is a very big deal." A bigger deal than passing a law that violates the first amendment? I call bullshit.

At best this is irrational fetishization of an unchangable constitution - the same that was invoked to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, and that is now invoked to give force to originalism. At worst this is a shameless political stunt: Hillary wants her flag-burning right-winger cred without having to put her money where her mouth is by actually banning a currently-protected form of political expression, so she gives lip-service to the ban crazies while solemnly intoning that we daren't change a word of our sacred and unalterable constitution. This is one of the many reasons why people think Hillary Clinton is an opportunist - and why they're absolutely right to do so.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Sep 17, 2005 7:03:27 PM

Does Hillary's position entail that she wants to pass an unconstitutional law? I'm having trouble figuring out how this is supposed to work. I suppose it could be that passing the law would be nice, but it's not worth a Constitutional amendment. My view is that this results in loss of fuck, leaving you with a halfhearted "America, yeah!"

More electable than Edwards?? You've been living in Canada for too long! (I'm sure we'll have a chance to fight this one out sometime.) For one thing, her speaking skills approach mediocrity from the wrong side. I trust Hillary to try to run a more culturally sensitive campaign. I don't trust her to succeed.

You really don't want your political identity to be determined by partisan affiliation. Probably 80-90% of the American public gets off on the idea of a strong military, so being the General is good stuff. There's a nice big majority for efficient government, hence Governor. Similarly large majorities want to help the working poor, hence Edwards. But less than half of the country is into the label "Democrat." If that's what you're made of, your appeal is severely limited.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Sep 17, 2005 7:07:04 PM

I'm still holding the position that Hillary will not run for President. I think that after watching what happened to Bill, despite the fact that the country was going well and he was genuinely popular (in contrast to the current idiot), she's decided that she will be better off working to become a powerful Senator. The next Pat Moynihan, if you will.

Posted by: Mike Jones | Sep 17, 2005 7:09:48 PM

I'm sooo hoping you're right, Mike. I'd love to see Hillary running the Senate Rules Committee, or perhaps Armed Services.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Sep 17, 2005 7:21:06 PM

I'm still holding the position that Hillary will not run for President. I think that after watching what happened to Bill, despite the fact that the country was going well and he was genuinely popular (in contrast to the current idiot), she's decided that she will be better off working to become a powerful Senator. The next Pat Moynihan, if you will.

Posted by: Mike Jones | Sep 17, 2005 7:32:41 PM

This is precisely why conventional politics is at best useless and at worst The Enemy of Us All.

There is no reason to support someone who's going to stab us in the back. What we would be better advised to do is work as best we can to bring it down. It's teetering on the edge regardless. It can offer us no protection, and the only promise it fulfills is to pick our pockets to benefit the ruling class.

It is not deserving of the slightest respect.

No, I haven't been re-reading Emma Goldman.

Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Sep 17, 2005 7:33:51 PM

I agree with Mike in betting that Hillary will not run for president.

Iron Lungfish, you're being really hyperbolic. Plenty of Americans, including me, think amending the constitution is a very big deal, and I expect my presidential candidates to agree. It stopped ERA but it also helped stop the hate amendment; it will help prevent radical changes engineered by whoever is in control of the zeitgeist. And originalism is about interpreting the document, not about writing changes into it.

Also, by your logic, taking any position with which you disagree is "ludicrous grandstanding". In fact, her in-the-middle position is shared by a lot of Americans (I can find other polls; this was the first that turned up on google). You want to call all these potential voters "ban crazies"?

Neil, I understand Hillary to say she would support a law that doesn't involve violating the first amendment. That such a thing probably doesn't exist means that she doesn't support a flag burning law. But it's not intellectually inconsistent to say you hate flag burning and wish you could pass a symbolic law against it (a postition with which I completely disagree) but don't favour tampering with the constitution. In fact, as I wrote above, that's what a lot of Americans, maybe a plurality, think.

As for Edwards vs. Hillary and my over-Canadianness, well, let me just say that my very red family down in North Carolina despised Edwards with an intensity they couldn't muster for Kerry last year. Actually, to the extent I'm leaning at all, it's toward Edwards in 2008. But not because he's a masterful politician, but because I think he'd make a good president and we might as well take a chance. But we'll argue about this another time :-)

Posted by: tlaura | Sep 17, 2005 7:41:55 PM

Oh, and while I like and admire Kerry very much, Hillary wouldn't run as culturally clueless a campaign because, frankly, I doubt it's technically possible.

Posted by: tlaura | Sep 17, 2005 7:56:44 PM

You want to call all these potential voters "ban crazies"?

I'd call them irrational. They clearly don't actually want flag-burning to be banned, because if they did, they'd support an amendment to do it, since any law banning flag-burning will be struck down by the courts. And yet they do support passing a law that will do nothing and have no effect. Why is this? Because they simultaneously hold both an irrational reverence for the flag and an irrational belief that the U.S. Constitution should generally not be changed, even when in the service of a cause they believe in. This isn't a defensible position, and it would surprise me if anyone holding that position had actually thought about it all that much.

An irrational voting public is nothing new; similar inconsistencies and paradoxes can be found on a host of other issues, ranging from abortion to health care to terrorism. Last November a non-trivial block of the electorate voted for George W. Bush while disagreeing with his stance on the Iraq War and simultaneously approving his handling of the war on terror (which Bush has insisted for years was inseparable from the war in Iraq, which these voters thought he was doing a bad job on, etc.). This is not a logical or reasonable position to have, but there you have it. Rationality does not dictate how people vote.

I don't expect voters to make sense; I do expect senators to - especially ones who've demonstrated as much intelligence as Clinton has in the past. I don't think she's being irrational, so I conclude that she's simply image-building. If you'd like to help convince me that she's simply dumb or crazy instead, please be my guest.

Plenty of Americans, including me, think amending the constitution is a very big deal, and I expect my presidential candidates to agree.

The amendment process is a big deal and will always be a big deal, no matter what politicians or citizens think of it, because it's spelled out in one of the few parts of the constitution that explicitly can't be amended, and that process is pretty damn tough to get through. That's as tough as it has to be. There doesn't need to be a cultural fear of that process ladled on top of it. In order for the FMA to pass, for instance, it would've needed a 2/3 vote in the Senate and the House followed by ratification by 3/4 of the states, which requires the exhaustion of every state that voted for Bush in the last election plus seven that voted for Kerry. It was never going to happen.

The reason to oppose the FMA was not because the constitution is too big and important to amend. The reason to oppose the FMA was because it was a foul and bigoted attack against equal rights. Ironically, most democrats couldn't make that principled argument because they'd already voted for DOMA, which was already a foul and bigoted attack against equal rights, so they fell back on a patently conservative line that the constitution generally shouldn't be changed.

A lot of Americans have been convinced of this argument, which makes it a useful argument in the right circumstance, but not a good one. There are a lot of good, sane, progressive changes we could make to the U.S. constitution which enjoy a lot more popular support than any of the pet conservative amendments floated from time to time. If liberals had more faith in liberalism as a movement and an ideology, they would embrace the notion of making change to the government at all levels, including the document that's been altered 27 times by now, and mostly for the better.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Sep 17, 2005 8:23:39 PM

As an aside, I agree with tlaura that Hillary is more electable than Edwards, but as I've said before, I don't mean that to compliment Hillary. Let's please try to drum up some excitement about someone who can actually win, here.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Sep 17, 2005 8:26:07 PM

I personnally can't understand why Hillary would be successful in the primaries. There are so many issues the grassroots is pushing - Iraq, Katrina, etc. Hillary is just sitting there and not taking a strong position on anything. If she runs, she will lose in the primaries. I think we need a strong, competent candidate. That is why I support Wesley Clark.

Posted by: Judy | Sep 17, 2005 8:31:01 PM

ILF, good response. However, I'm not talking about why liberals should have opposed the hate amendment; I'm talking about why it failed in the real, conservative-leaning world. And that wasn't because a majority of the population think it was bigotted. It was because enough people, including thinking conservatives (National Review's staff was totally split) fell back on their "irrational" love of the constitution -- not that the two aren't intertwined to some extent. Holding prejudice isn't the same as wanting it enshrined in the constitution. It's also not true that liberals have not argued against further anti-gay changes to the law and based their reasoning on DOMA. Look, it's to Kerry's discredit he didn't take a stronger position on FMA, but think back to the 2000 primary when both Gore and Bradley argued against the California state hate amendment on the grounds that DOMA had taken care of things and everything else was just hate-mongering.

Voters don't make sense, but they do make the decisions, not the "party leaders" or the "establishment". When you're in power, you try to lead them in sensible directions. And the Dems didn't do this enough last time they were in power. When you're out of power, you try to win their votes. You don't dismiss their thinking as "irrational". Also, except for the Congressional pay-raise one, the last serious amendment to the constitution was in 1971. Do we want to open the floodgates again on amendments? Remember when social security was the "third rail"? Things change in politics. Hillary's position makes perfect sense to me. If I revered the flag more than I do, I'd agree with it.

Also, we really don't know who's electable and who isn't. We're all just guessing. If we knew, we probably wouldn't be losing elections.

Posted by: tlaura | Sep 17, 2005 8:58:34 PM

On the one hand I'm in the they're going to slime the hell out of whoever we run anyway camp. On the other hand, I guess that they've had a 16 year headstart on Hillary, and we might as well make 'em work for it as much as possible with someone fresh.

But I also think about how much Republicans just viscerally loathe her. And as such, I think whoever we should nominate should go with a "vote for me or next time we're gonna nominate Hillary" slogan, which might just be a potent enough threat to secure a victory.

Posted by: Jedmunds | Sep 17, 2005 11:07:48 PM

I think Hillary has all the problems described - though that flag question is obscure and many Americans won't care - and more, but I think she is running and there's a good likelihood she could get the nimination and possibly win. Democrats, especially ones who oppose her, need to understand that before dismissing her out of hand. (I particularly like Neil's coming at the mediocrity of her public speaking from the wrong side. Exactly.)

Look, I think she'd say anything to win. I have no idea what her take on the issues are, and I have no idea what she'd do if elected. But between her and a Republican, I'd vote for her - hell, I'd vote for a Democratic begonia - and we all know plenty of others who'd do the same. I can't say that about every Democrat - she has a natural Democratic voting bloc that's simply too large to ignore, and the others don't. As unknowable and untrustworthy as she is, we know she's not a Republican, and that may be good enough.

I think Hillary is a test of resolve - just how badly do we want to win? Would we do anything for it? Before you say "no no no", stop and consider the alternatives. I guarantee you that's what the people in the establishment and the money people are doing. If it's not Hillary than we need an interesting alternative we can unite behind early. And none of the names I've seen floating about get there, at least for now, at least from what I've seen. And yes, that includes Edwards, Clark (especially Clark), and Warner, though I'd admit he's the most interesting alternative yet.

Posted by: weboy | Sep 18, 2005 10:08:15 AM

weboy makes some good points. I really wish Hillary would not run; but I'm not sure we have anybody else that is both ready & willing to run AND is a qualified, electable candidate.

Obama? Not ready.
Gore? *sigh* I wish. Not likely though.
Edwards? Got labeled with "too young" last time & not sure 4 years out of power will quailfiy him more.
Clark? I like Clark as a person but his last campaign was not that impressive.
Warner? Feingold? Frankly I don't know enough about them to make a call.

And yes, of course, if Hillary were the eventual nominee I'd cross my fingers, hope for the best, and vote for her. I'd prefer a candidate that I felt happy and enthusiastic about, though.

Posted by: fiat lux | Sep 18, 2005 11:16:44 AM

Hilary's Flag Burning position reminds me of Bill and the Internet censorship bill: in both cases, a Clinton supports a law that they KNOW won't pass judicial review, so they get the "moderate" credibility of supporting it, without having to worry about it actually becoming law. It's behavior typical of craven, triangulating, ideal-less types. Feh. Give me Feingold: after all the waffling and hedging, his unequivocal stances will be like a blast of cold water during the standard campaign season, with the added benefit that his positions: out of Iraq, universal health care, just happen to be wildly popular.

Posted by: Matt_C | Sep 18, 2005 12:33:59 PM

What really matters is Hillary's lack of speaking ability and generally unappealing TV persona. I've said it before and will keep saying it: The Dems have to start nominating people who do well on TV. Bill Clinton did, but Dukakis, Gore and Kerry were all TV disasters. The uncommitted swing voters that the Dems need don't follow politics much, and aren't going to know or care all that much about Hillary's specific positions. What they'll respond to is someone who appears both warm and strong on TV, because that's where this group gets their information. This is more of an issue for the Dems than for the Republicans, since the Republicans start with a larger base, and thus can rely more on turning the base out. However, the Republicans do seem to have a better understanding of the importance of video appeal. Remember all those people who said they voted for Bush because he seemed like a good guy to share a beer with? That's the group we're talking about here, and the Dems' wonkishness turns them off. It isn't exactly that Hillary will come off as opportunistic to them because of her position switches, since they won't know that much about her positions, but they'll be turned off by her calculating persona.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD | Sep 18, 2005 1:54:02 PM

Nominating Hillary for the Democratic Nomination would a mistake. She is a divisive person with a lot of baggage.

It is too early to pick, but I actually think Gore / Clarke would be a great ticket for '08.

Posted by: The Viscount LaCarte | Sep 18, 2005 5:48:41 PM

If you have read Stephen Ducat's "The Wimp Factor" you would know exactly why Hillary cannot win. And it has nothing to do with the perception that she is a liberal (alienating conservatives) with conservative positions (alienating liberals) - though these do not help.

She is the Devil Incarnate no matter what she says or does between now and 2008. In his 1993 (yes, 1993!) book ("The Great Limbaugh Con"), Michael Kelly documents villification of Hillary and that was even BEFORE the health-care proposal, before Monica, and before the awakening of the mediaval bloodthirsty conservatism under the Bush reign.

Posted by: coturnix | Sep 18, 2005 10:45:04 PM

And Neil makes the mistake so many do in dreaming of a Dem candidate who is vacinated from republican attacks by having no baggage.

It doesn't matter who we put up - they are gonna get slimed - and if there isn't real baggage - they'll make it up.

The issue isn't whether the candidate gets attacked. It's how the candidate responds to it. I have no doubt that a Hillary campaign would hit back and hit back hard - Bill sure did.

Despite that - I fear that she would lose for another reason altogether: I don't think this country is ready for a female president. I just don't. There is still too much misogyny out there for a woman to win - even a conservative one.

People would say they support her then go into the booth and pull the other lever...thekeez

Posted by: Jeff Keezel | Sep 19, 2005 11:30:09 AM

Lots of good arguments here, and I must say from a purely logical exercise I agree with Neil.

But then I see things like this http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2005-05-26-hillary-poll_x.htm
saying 54% of the American public would vote for Hillary. If a majority of the country, for whatever crazy reason, wants to vote for then godspeed! If any female Democrat, let alone one that believes deeply in universal healthscare, can garnish a majority in a poll (something John Kerry never did till 10 minutes to D-day) then I bow to the evidence and say go ahead.

I really don't know how the public works sometimes. Looking at Hillary and W, it seems just "having a last name that was famous" seems an even bigger and cruder advantage than our cynical musings on opportunism and Republican slime.

Posted by: Tony Vila | Sep 19, 2005 12:31:51 PM

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