Barack Obama did not blow apart Hillary Clinton’s huge lead during the 2008 Democratic primaries just because he was a landmark African-American candidate, new to the scene, and a skilled campaigner. Even Democrats were all Clintoned out.
By such weariness, I don’t suggest that either of the Clintons is unpopular. Indeed, Americans apparently look fondly back on the high-growth 1990s as the continuation of the Reagan-Bush boom years, and a time when Democrats and Republicans finally fixed budget deficits. (Note well that when Obama went back to the Clinton-era tax rates for the more affluent, the deficit dipped, but certainly did not approach the balanced budget that was once achieved by spending discipline under the Clinton-Gingrich compromise.)
The problem instead is Hillary Clinton herself. She is not a very good speaker, and is prone to shrill outbursts and occasional chortling. She has a bad habit of committing serial gaffes (e.g., speaking too candidly), and what she says on Monday is often contradicted by her rantings on Tuesday. She seems cheap and obsessed with raking in free stuff. When Bill steps in to correct her mistakes, either sloppily or out of some strange psychological spite, he usually makes things even worse. We saw that often in 2008 and are seeing it again now. But aside from the cosmetics of her political style, the Clintons are faced with two fundamental obstacles in 2016.
One, Hillary Clinton seems to be interested in running on the elite progressive themes of equality and fairness. The problem here is obvious. Few Americans have more enriched themselves by trading on their public service than have she and her husband. A George Marshall in retirement Hillary is not.
With the Clintons there is always a catch to the apologies for their progressive graspingness. At a time of record student debt, sky-rocketing tuition, and scandalous university perks, Hillary Clinton is now charging over $200,000 for a brief run-of-the-mill “I am Hillary” speech — no landmark political announcements, no insights into foreign policy, nothing much other than standard liberal therapeutic boilerplate trading on her increased market value due to her recent tenure as chief foreign affairs officer of the United States.
When these exorbitant fees were questioned by the liberal media, she seemed stunned that any would doubt her progressive fides, and cited her past caring for the poorer off. Then she backed off and assured us that the money went to “charity.” Of course, with the Clintons, we know there is always a nuance and tweak to follow. So next, the “charity” turned out to be the Clinton Foundation, which tends to fund the extravagant private jet travel of mostly Bill and Hillary and their appendages.
One Percenters as Populist Poseurs
How then do the Clintons pass as populists, given their exorbitant speaking fees — Bill has probably raked in more post-presidential money than all prior U.S. presidents of the last half-century combined — their mansions, and their elaborate one-percent lifestyles? Was $30 million in book advances over the years for the two of them not enough for progressive populists?
Hillary protested that despite a past multimillion-dollar book advance for her, and multimillion-dollar speaking fees lined up for Bill, they left the presidency “broke” in 2001. When that trope did not work, Hillary turned to the now well-known theory of medieval exemption: they could not possibly be greedy (in the sense of ignoring the Obama rule that a multimillionaire must know when not to profit and at what point she has already made enough money), because they were lifelong liberals who had worked their tails off for social justice.
Like John Kerry (the advocate of higher taxes who avoided them on his yacht, like Al Gore (the proponent of green energy who likes private jets and big SUVs, and like Tom Steyer (whose green cash donations are predicated on cashing in on sooty coal development in third-world countries), the Clintons see no contradiction in charging outrageous rates for speaking and living quite well — while being for “fairness.”
Indeed, under the protocols of contemporary progressivism, in the abstract being loudly for equality means in the concrete having a lot more things than most anyone else. Modern liberalism has descended into the art of rich people blaming the lower middle class for not being generous enough with money they don’t have.
In such a strange world, Chelsea, Hillary assures us, is not so interested in profit-mongering and all such distasteful money-grubbing, but does tolerate a ten-million-dollar New York tony apartment (replete with Italian marble baths), and sort of puts up with a multi-thousand-dollar an hour nepotistic TV contract.
She is even willing to stomach her multimillionaire parents crafting all sorts of family trusts to avoid inheritance taxes so that she will have enough millions not to worry about having to make millions to support a lifestyle she doesn’t much like. Keep all that in mind as Hillary drops her g’s and adopts a black patois when addressing African-Americans, and, to paraphrase Barack Obama, then again becomes Annie Oakley when shooting rifles with the clingers.
What a strange couple the Clintons became: the feminist president who was a serial groper and ace harasser; the feminist secretary of State who chortled in recall about an old sexual battery case in which she got a rapist off easy, and whose advisors reduced Bill’s liaisons to trailer trash or nuts; the two populists who cashed in; the middle-class defenders who fawned over Wall Street; and on and on.
The second problem with Hillary’s candidacy is Obama. In 2009, the betting was close on whether her secretary of State (she had no particular foreign affairs experience prior to her appointment) billet was a deft Obama move (keep your enemies closer than your friends) or a Clintonian wise political gambit (keep in the limelight for 2016).
The problem is that her four years as secretary of State coincided with a collapse of U.S. foreign policy unseen since 1979-80. In a fair world, Hillary would be judged as the worst secretary of State since Cyrus Vance. Most of the disasters — Benghazi, the chaos in Libya, the failed reset with Russia, the bogus Syrian red lines, the phony Iranian deadlines to stop enrichment, the yanking of all peacekeepers out of Iraq that led to the ISIS ascendance, the surge and simultaneous withdrawal dates in Afghanistan, the disastrous Middle East pressures that have led to the eve of war, the flip-flop-flip in Egypt, the clumsy spying on allies, the lying about and jailing of a video maker, and on and on — came on her watch.
Distancing Her Own Disaster from a Disaster
Even if Obama were at 60% approval ratings, if the economy were booming, if there were no alphabet soup of scandals — AP, IRS, VA, NSA, etc. — Hillary would have some trouble contextualizing her disastrous record as secretary of State during a popular administration.
But now she must distance her own disaster from a disaster. I suppose that it is conventionally wise for her to junk Obama (e.g., “he did it, not me”), but there are pitfalls nonetheless. She must over the next two years cut herself off from everything Obama. She must do so on the premise that she was secretary despite, not because of, Obama and that all the disastrous decisions that she made were really her boss’s — the exact nature of which each month she may reluctantly disclose.
If Obama’s popularity dips below 40% — the point at which a presidency is reduced to irrelevance — with more than two years left on his tenure, Hillary will only speed up the process. She will de facto run against Obama (on the premise that she is promising a continuum of Bill Clinton’s Democratic mainstream successes) in the manner that Adlai Stevenson sort of ran against lame duck Harry Truman in 1952, and in the way in which John McCain often seemed as critical of George W. Bush as was Barack Obama.
Yet trashing your kindred predecessor is a hard thing to pull off (ask Al Gore). Presidents in their last year of office don’t appreciate it, and occasionally have ways to push back. Sometimes the base doesn’t like such ingratitude either. The electorate asks, why elect another Democrat or Republican to follow an unpopular Democrat or Republican? For Hillary to escape Obama’s unpopularity, she must in circular fashion over the next two years only make him more unpopular by her very efforts at distancing herself from him — while avoiding the charge of,”well, then, what were you doing from 2009 to 20013?” Adlai Stevenson and John McCain, of course, were not cabinet officers in the respective Truman and Bush administrations.
None of these hurdles — or questions about both Hillary’s and Bill’s age and health — is insurmountable for a contortionist like Ms. Clinton. Hillary believes that Obama’s great achievement is that he left a permanently divided America, by his various “wars” of race, gender and class. Accordingly, she can reforge that adversarial coalition of young women, gays, greens, minorities, unions, elite liberals and wealthy progressives against “them” by virtue of her gender and politics — and do so is a less grating way. The feminist who hunted down Bill’s interns and who makes $200,000 from cash-strapped universities for brief pep talks will soon lecture us on the evils of a misogynist one-percent nation (e.g., don’t we all hate those who make more in 30 minutes than we do in four years?).
Current polls suggest that she will pull it off. (In the way the early polls had assured that she would in 2008?) What then is likely?
Who knows, although we can be certain of one fact: If the Republican candidate campaigns according to the Marquess of Queensberry rules in the fashion of John McCain or Mitt Romney and politely deflects each hour the insinuation that as a rich, old white guy de facto he is culpable for some –ism or -ology, Hillary will be elected.
But if such charges are either inapplicable to the Republican candidate or are answered in slash-and-burn Lee Atwater style — who was so despised by establishment Republican political operatives — then nothing is certain.