It hardly came as a surprise when Hillary Clinton announced (via a web posting) that she is all-in for the 2016 presidential election. Nor is it particularly difficult to envision her having the Democratic Party’s nomination wrapped up by this time next year. Yes, she will have token opposition (Maryland’s Governor, Martin O’Malley, for one, is likely to give it a try), but it won’t take long for Ms. Clinton to eliminate any serious threat to her nomination.
(Talk of an Obama-like candidacy by Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Senator who is to the left of Ms. Clinton on most issues, is not going anywhere, since the Senator has done nothing but declare decisively that she is not a candidate. Whatever misgivings the left wing of the party has about Ms. Clinton are not going to push Ms. Warren to get into the fray. If she had such thoughts, we’d have seen activity by now. Barack Obama, by comparison, had already declared his candidacy by this point in 2007.)
Ms. Clinton will be the nominee of her party, which will, in and of itself, be an oddly momentous achievement, marking the first time a woman has held such a position in American history. Whether she will then win the national election and become the nation’s first female president, however, is a decidedly different question, one to which the answer is far from clear.
The first reason she might not win is that many will assume that she will, which will lead to voter apathy. And, that fact, coupled with less than overwhelming enthusiasm from those lefties in her party who think she is just too conservative and too militaristic, may reduce the vote total she might otherwise secure. It’s safe to assume that the call to arms among Democrats will overcome those potential problems, but they can’t be discounted at this early stage in the prognostication game.
The bigger threat to Ms. Clinton’s inevitability will come from the Republicans. It’s true that they have tended to choose weak candidates recently, but the odds are that they won’t this time around. Yes, they’ll have a primary season in which a bevy of far-right types will claim to be the heir to Ronald Reagan, but when was the last time one of them emerged with the nomination? It certainly wasn’t in 2012, when Mitt Romney (the “moderate” in the GOP field) survived the onslaught of nut-jobs and clowns who ran against him. (Remember Herman Cain, Donald Trump, and Michelle Bachman?)
And it wasn’t in ’08, when John McCain bested a similar cast of characters. Even George W. Bush, intellectually-deficient though he may have been, was not viewed as a far-right choice in the 2000 field he ran against. No, the Republicans will nominate someone who can appeal to the middle of the electorate (which, in today’s America, is someone who would be to the right of Barry Goldwater in an earlier generation, but today is to the left of the likes of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul).
And the Republican ticket is also likely to include a woman, which is the obvious move to counter a strong female turnout for Hillary. Several Republican women not named Sarah Palin are potential VP nominees. New Mexico’s Governor, Susana Martinez, would be a good bet, since she would offer the ticket a two-fer, being Latina as well as a woman. And if the top of the ticket nod goes to Jeb Bush, who is married to a Latina, even if he isn’t of that ethnic persuasion himself, the Hispanic vote that would otherwise be expected to tilt Democratic could be neutralized.
At this point, I would rate Bush as the odds-on favorite to get the GOP nomination. The party will be fearful of Bush-fatigue, and nominating him will eliminate the Clinton-fatigue campaign line, but on paper Jeb Bush is the closest thing to a centrist in the party, and he, unlike his dimwit brother, can actually speak in complete sentences and sound intelligent while doing so.
But the Republican ticket won’t be Hillary’s biggest hurdle. Instead it will be Hillary herself. On paper, she looks great, with credentials that no other candidate can match. But American voters don’t tend to base their votes on such things as “best qualified.” If they did, Al Gore would have easily won the 2000 election, and Barack Obama never would have been nominated in 2008.
No, today’s electorate wants someone who either is likeable (Dubya) or has charisma (Obama). In 2000, Gore was heavily favored until he showed himself to be stiff and awkward in the debates against Mr. Bush, who was the guy you would have a beer with. Likeability, more than butterfly ballots and hanging chads, sent the 2000 election to the Supremes.
In 2008, Mr. Obama came across as the charismatic alternative to the stiff (and awkward) Hillary Clinton, and then took that charisma into the general election against a stiff and old John McCain. On paper, Obama was as unqualified to be the president as Bush (perhaps even more so), but he was far more exciting, dynamic (and young) than either Ms. Clinton or Mr. McCain.
Hillary will have to battle herself to overcome the disadvantage she will have in the likeability and charisma departments next year. She will need to show more natural humanity and somehow learn how to deliver an exciting speech. Neither of those skills will be easy for her because she doesn’t project the every-woman persona that a Sarah Palin can in a blink of an eye, and she doesn’t electrify an audience like her husband can at the drop of a hat.
She’ll also have to counter a slew of scandal attacks that the Fox News folks will help to foment. It will start with the Benghasi tragedy, which isn’t really a scandal at all, but will be cast as one (as it has been ever since the four Americans were killed in the raid on the consulate). There is also no real scandal in Ms. Clinton’s use of her private e-mail account for State Department business while she was Secretary of State, but she’ll be lambasted for it nevertheless. And then, too, there will be vague allusions to supposed scandals from her husband’s administration and from the Clinton Foundation’s record-keeping and fundraising activities.
The cumulative effect of these allegations will take a toll; how can they not with those in the electorate who get their “news” solely from the GOP mouthpieces on Fox News? How much of an effect they will have will largely depend on how effectively Ms. Clinton’s campaign refutes them. Ms. Clinton has a tendency to be petulant when pressed (as she became in her Senate committee Benghasi testimony). If that side of her surfaces in response to the scandal charges, she’ll suffer electorally.
And then there’s the last potential barrier to Ms. Clinton’s election: the swing of the popular mood. Consider the span of years the respective parties have held the presidency since 1952: Republicans – 1953-1961; Democrats – ’61-‘69; Republicans – ’69-’77; Democrats – ’77-’81 (Carter denied second term by Reagan); Republicans – ’81-’93; Democrats – ’93-2001; Republicans – ’01-’09; Democrats – ’09- you get the picture.
Here’s the bottom line: Hillary Clinton may become the nation’s first female president, but don’t bet the house on it.