With only 20 months to go before the next national election, it's time for political junkies and other interested citizens to start dissecting the field of presidential aspirants. In all seriousness, it's not too soon to begin. The absurd front-loading of the primary and caucus season means that major-party candidates will be selected by early February 2008, at the latest.
It should be a Democratic year, barring a surge miracle in Iraq or some unforeseen event (a new foreign war, a major domestic terrorist attack) with the potential to resurrect the GOP by reviving jingoistic impulses and semi-dormant security fears. Failing that, the choice of Democratic caucus-goers and primary voters will very likely be the next president, particularly if they choose wisely. The preliminary returns are already in, and one thing is clear, the party's nominee will almost certainly be one of three people, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards, with the hovering presence of Al Gore constituting a fourth long-shot possibility.
As the contenders leave the starting gate, pundits and oddmakers have made Hillary Clinton the prohibitive favorite. No surprise there; she has name recognition, a huge war chest, and political chits to be called in dating back to her husband's administration. The media, which likes to winnow the field, wants to see her reach the general election; a controversial Clinton in the race will be good theater and grist for the journalistic mills. Polls confirm she's in the lead, partly because those polled have been continually reminded she's the proper frontrunner. (Never underestimate the power of suggestion.) And everyone agrees Hillary is smart, shrewd, and hardworking.
But the senator from New York has, as they say, baggage -- enough to fill a warehouse. There's Bill, of course. The former president and potential first spouse cuts both ways; he's popular with elements of the party that view the 1990s through a nostalgic haze, but he's also a distractive time bomb liable to go off at any moment, whether in the form of "bimbo eruptions" or a loquacious tongue that wags at both ends. And his return would mean reliving his two terms in office, refighting the old political battles and rerunning the soap opera that is the Clintons.
Hillary herself seems content to revisit the past, not least as the avenging angel for old-line Democrats who have not forgotten (or forgiven) the Republican impeachment. Her top-heavy corps of advisers and strategists is composed of veteran Clinton loyalists, and her campaign is peddling the time-honored Clinton nostrums: free trade, balanced budgets, market-based health reforms, minimalist social programs and the like. Conservative columnist David Brooks calls Hillary a centrist who is "comfortable with business." (Press magnate Rupert Murdock is a friend.)
The candidate seconded this evaluation in a 2005 speech, saying: "I am an advocate of Clinton economics ... We were on the right track in the 1990s." That presumably refers to such gifts to the nation as NAFTA, the financial bailout of Mexico and its American lenders, and the consumer-unfriendly deregulation of the banking and telecommunications industries. Throw in for good measure the creation of a low-wage, service-based economy, the virtual abandonment of antitrust restraints, and the Republican-inspired, tough-love welfare reform, which did not end poverty but did end federal responsibility for it.
On the foreign-policy front, Clinton baggage handlers will also have to heft the elephant in the room, the Iraq war and the senator's stubborn refusal to disavow it. Her Lieberman-esque position has all along been that Bush's war was justified and righteous, but that it was tactically mishandled. This is not a stance likely to sell outside the Washington Beltway. And it's accompanied by Hillary's strident claim to be tougher on terrorism than any other candidate, raising troubling questions about her commitment to civil liberties and her interest in non-military solutions to world problems.
Lastly, there is the matter of Clintonian political tactics, which have been unpleasantly on display since the campaign began in earnest. Clinton backer and former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe set the belligerent tone with a "You're with us or you're against us" warning for Democrats to get on board the restoration bandwagon. The candidate followed up, in the wake of the David Geffen flap, by promising to "deck" political opponents and by attempting to decree through intimidation a Democratic version of the GOP's 11th commandment: Thou shalt not criticize a Clinton.
Having reaffirmed her Madame Defarge reputation as someone who equates politics with war -- the term "war room" is her creation -- Hillary moved on to what is emerging as the strategic sine qua non of her campaign: playing the gender card. From the lame joke about dealing with "evil and bad men" to the patronizing and self-serving call for the election of a female president, there is an evident plan to trivialize the contest by cynically dividing Democrats on the basis of sexual politics. What becomes important in this context is not any ideology or set of issues, but having a woman in the Oval Office.
It's the latest chapter in the hankering after "firsts" that marks the modern American political system's quest for group validation, but in the present instance, it's meant to capitalize on the fact that women make up slightly over half the population. Let the several male candidates divide up the men's vote, goes the reasoning, and women, voting their identity as a bloc, will power Hillary Clinton to the nomination and, ultimately, the presidency.
But the Clintons leave nothing to chance. In addition to being the female candidate, Hillary, because of her centrist posture and aura of inevitability and entitlement, is her party's establishment choice, with the millions in funding and the advantageously arranged early primary schedule that status has guaranteed. As befits the candidate of political insiders, the senator's game plan calls for finessing the Democratic electorate without threatening vested economic interests by any populistic rhetoric about class liable to cause the corporate money tap to dry up.
That proven approach may not work this time around. It's open season on political animals. Voters are tired of calculation, triangulation, trimming, dissembling, and plausible deniability. They want no more of focus groups and polldriven politics. They want genuine authenticity in a candidate. For that, the Clinton campaign is the wrong place to look.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.
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