Hillary Clinton in 2016: The wrong woman at the wrong time
Hillary Clinton's long-expected presidential campaign launch came over the weekend. Despite the recent scandals over her Chappaqua-based personal email server, and the renewed hostility of the press toward her tight-lipped and hostile political machine, Clinton has to be considered the most likely successor to President Obama. It doesn't matter if she's only ever beaten a small-time congressman and a Yonkers mayor in her previous elections. The lack of a serious challenge from within the Democratic Party means she has a very clear shot at the nomination and the presidency.
But there is paradox at the heart of Clinton's campaign rationale. The most natural story for a Democratic candidate to tell in 2016 is that a Democratic administration rescued the nation from Republican-caused economic ruin eight years ago, that the economy is growing at a nice clip, and that the dollar is galloping past the euro even as gas prices go below even the dreams of Newt Gingrich's 2012 campaign. But now it's time to make sure these economic gains are not accruing just to Wall Street and the big banks. The economic recovery has to be translated into a middle-class recovery.
Ideologically, Clinton is ill-suited to make this case. And it seems that many party stalwarts know it.
The Democratic recovery that has brought such tremendous gains to Wall Street and has made income inequality more profound was inaugurated under a president who beat Hillary Clinton in 2008 by being more progressive and more critical of Wall Street than she was.
It would be more natural if Clinton was president for eight years, had accomplished some form of health-care reform, and was delivering an economic recovery to an incoming Obama administration, which had the mission to make America's gains more equitable. That's not the case.
Clinton has remarkable trouble shifting into a more progressive gear. When Clinton visited Sen. Elizabeth Warren's territory last October, she tried to imitate the progressive icon, saying, "Don't let anybody tell you that corporations and businesses create jobs." But within a few days she was clarifying and retracting those remarks.
For some time we have been told that Clinton intends to "run as a woman." By framing her candidacy in the terms of her sex, she has a way of connecting her personal story to concerns like paid maternity leave. One suspects that this is also a way of baiting Republicans into self-detonating on women's issues. There is very little doubt that '90s-style resentment and hatred of Hillary will boil over within the conservative movement's media organs. Talk radio and the guttersnipes of the right will encourage Republican candidates to dance maniacally through a war-on-women minefield. (A Clinton presidency is better for their business anyway.)
But running as a woman isn't enough. Clinton has to execute a difficult maneuver. She must draw on nostalgia for the 1990s, when broad economic gains seemed to be more equitably shared, while still coming across as her own woman and not as a retread of her husband's presidency. On top of this, she has to avoid becoming the Bob Dole of the race, a candidate who pines for the good ol' days. That would be especially disastrous against a candidate like Marco Rubio, whose youth and ethnicity can't help but evoke America's future.
Clinton does have serious advantages. The presidential electorate is far better territory for Democrats than the midterm electorate, which gave America an enormous GOP congressional majority. She has locked up almost all the serious brain power on the Democratic side for her run. She remains a popular figure across the party, even if enthusiasm for her is lower among the novelty-craving media.
But Clinton is not a good fit for the 2016 race. She's a candidate associated with the past, leading the party that is demographically more like America's future. She's a candidate of the wine-and-brie set of her party, in a post-Occupy America that is crying out for a more equitable social contract. She's the candidate that you settle on after Obama, in an era when Democrats are quietly upset that Obama himself seems to have settled for something less than his best self.
Maybe she'll get lucky and the Republicans will nominate another Bush.