Nate Silver, the Svengali of political prognostication, has spoken: The Republicans now have a better-than-even chance of taking the Senate in November’s midterm elections.
That’s bad news for Democrats in general. But it’s very bad news for Hillary Clinton in particular.
Clinton is the 2016 Democratic front-runner by a mile. Just about the entire party, most of the media, and virtually all of the big liberal donors assume she’s going to run and clean up in the primaries. Most of them are also bullish on her prospects in the general election, no matter who receives the nod on the Republican side — and for good reason.
Whereas gerrymandered congressional districts look likely to favor Republicans in the House of Representatives for the foreseeable future, nationwide demographic trends give Democrats the edge in presidential races. Clinton will benefit from that advantage, as well as from a considerable store of good will built up during her time as secretary of state, from fond memories of her husband’s presidency, and from the enthusiasm of those who long to see her become the nation’s first female president.
All of which makes Hillary a uniquely formidable candidate. At least in the abstract.
When it comes to the specific circumstances of the 2016 presidential race, she may be in a much weaker position than her supporters assume.
The problem has nothing to do with Hillary’s image or record. ("Benghazi" will be decisive only to people who would never consider voting for her in the first place.) A presidential campaign can adjust an image and respond proactively to glitches in a candidate’s record. But it can’t do anything about running in the shadow of an unpopular, ineffective president. And that, increasingly, is what it looks like Hillary is going to have to do.
Barack Obama’s approval ratings are mired in the low 40s. The signature legislative achievement of his presidency, the Affordable Care Act, remains extremely unpopular — so much so that the administration keeps putting off implementation of key parts of the law (a move that may well be unconstitutional). When it comes to foreign policy, the U.S. looks bewildered and ineffective in some areas (Russia, Syria) and setting itself up for humiliation in others (Iran, Israel-Palestine).
And then there’s Congress. Obama has already given up on trying to move legislation through the Republican-controlled House. And in the past few months, he hasn’t even been able to get his executive branch nominees through the Senate, where Democrats in the majority have gone so far as to implement a controversial rule change to block filibusters of most nominations.
What’s likely to happen if the Republicans take the Senate in November?
Meaning that for the last two years of Obama’s presidency, nothing whatsoever will make it through Congress. Republicans will do everything in their power to turn Obama into the lamest lame-duck president in history. And though it may not be fair, that ineffectiveness is likely to drive down Obama’s poll numbers even further.
That will be the background to Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House. And it could present her campaign with an insoluble conundrum.
The best possible scenario for a candidate running to succeed a two-term president from the same party is for him to be very popular. That way, the organizing theme of the campaign can be some version of a cheerful "More of the same!" (This could have been the key to a strong victory for Al Gore in 2000, had his personal demons and latent hostility to Bill Clinton not driven Gore to distance himself from a popular sitting president and his substantial record of accomplishments.)
But when the sitting president is unpopular, the candidate is trapped. (Don’t take it from me. Just ask John McCain.) She can’t offer more of the same, because no one wants that. But neither can she directly denounce the president for his missteps and promise to take the country in a dramatically different direction, since doing so would seem disloyal to both him and their party. In the specific case of Obama, there’s the added complication that he remains extremely popular in the African-American community, which Hillary can’t risk alienating.
Meanwhile, the Republican candidate will have maximum leeway to attack the unpopular president relentlessly, tying the candidate to him through their shared party affiliation, as well as a resume showing four years of loyal service to his administration.
To which Hillary can respond by saying...what, exactly?
Presumably some version of "Yes, but."
Which doesn’t make for a particularly rousing campaign slogan.
Maybe it won’t come to that. Maybe the Democrats will hold the Senate. Maybe Obama’s approval ratings will bounce back. Maybe some global event will alter the downward trajectory of Obama’s presidency.
But at the moment, none of those scenarios seem as likely as one in which Hillary is forced to fight an uphill battle with the dead weight of an unpopular president strapped to her back.