July 30, 2005

Is Hillary Clinton Electable?

I never cared much for Hillary Clinton, and I’m somewhat persuaded by Christopher Hitchens’ polemic against both Hill and Bill in No One Left To Lie To. At the same time I’ve always been both amused and put off by Hillary Derangement Syndrome. (I still remember the “Impeach Hillary” slogan on the right in the early 90s. If she is elected president, will “Re-Impeach Bill” be the new rallying cry?)

Very few politicians make the short list of those I actually admire and appreciate on some level. Hillary isn’t one of them. Those who do make the list: Barack Obama, Harold Ford Jr., Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain.

A huge fight has been raging inside the Democratic Party for many years about whether they should tack left and pump up the base or move to the center and win the hearts and minds of the swing voters. Moveon.org wants to go left. The Democratic Leadership Council wants to squat in the center. The fight gets truly nasty at times, and the Democrats lose voters to both the Republicans and the Green Party because of it.

It isn't necessarily an either/or proposition, though. What the Democrats need to do to be popular again is occupy both the left and the center at the same time. They need to find someone both Atrios and I will be willing to vote for. John Kerry tried to be that person, and it just wasn't possible. It hurt me watching him try.

Hillary is interesting, though. (You just know someone is a celebrity in our culture when we can refer to them by their first name only.) She does manage to occupy both the left and the center at the same time.

Here is Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate.
An unhedged supporter of the war in Iraq, Sen. Clinton stands at the hawkish, interventionist extreme of her party on foreign policy. Despite her pandering vote against CAFTA, she's a confirmed free-trader and deficit hawk. On the cultural issues that often undermine Democrats, she seeks common ground, sometimes with flat-earth conservatives like Rick Santorum, and has been nattering about the “tragedy” of abortion. Even Hillary's notorious government takeover of health care was misconstrued as an ultra-lib stance. In opting for a mixed, private-public managed-competition plan, the then-first lady was repudiating the single-payer model long favored by paleo-liberals. Her plan was flawed in many ways, but it wasn't what Ted Kennedy wanted.

In fact, Sen. Clinton's political positioning couldn't be better for 2008. Despite being a shrewdly triangulating centrist on the model of her husband, she remains wildly popular with the party's liberal core: It seems to share the right's erroneous view of her as a closet lefty and draws closer to her with every inane conservative attack. There's no other possible candidate in either party so well poised to claim the center without losing the base.

She does have a serious problem, though, and it’s one I noticed from the very beginning.
Yet Hillary does face a genuine electability issue, one that has little to do with ideology, woman-hating, or her choice of life partner. Plainly put, it's her personality. In her four years in the Senate, Hillary has proven herself to be capable, diligent, formidable, effective, and shrewd. She can make Republican colleagues sound like star-struck teenagers. But she still lacks a key quality that a politician can't achieve through hard work: likability. As hard as she tries, Hillary has little facility for connecting with ordinary folk, for making them feel that she understands, identifies, and is at some level one of them. You may admire and respect her. But it's hard not to find Hillary a bit inhuman. Whatever she may be like in private, her public persona is calculating, clenched, relentless—and a little robotic.

With the American electorate so closely divided, it would be foolish to say that Hillary, or any other potential nominee, couldn't win. And a case can be made that the first woman who gets elected president will need to, as Hillary does, radiate more toughness than warmth. But in American elections, affection matters. Democrats lost in 2000 and 2004 with candidates Main Street regarded as elitist and aloof, to a candidate voters related to personally. Hillary isn't as obnoxious as Gore or as off-putting as Kerry. But she's got the same damn problem, and it can't be fixed.

Swing voters will never love Hillary Clinton. But swing voters don’t have to like who they vote for. They just need to dislike their candidate less than they dislike the other party’s candidate.

Last month I had beer with another local blogger who voted for Bush. He said he couldn’t think of a single Republican politician who stands a chance in the 2008 primary that he would be willing to vote for. “I think I may have to vote for Hillary Clinton,” he said.

“I’m surprised to hear you say that,” I said.

“Oh, I can’t stand the bitch,” he said. “But I might not have any choice.”

Spoken like a true swing voter.

The center will never go ga-ga over Hillary Clinton. She'll do, though, perhaps, if the Republicans also pick someone unlikable.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at July 30, 2005 1:29 PM
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