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Hillary the Inevitable … Again?

All throughout the 2012 presidential campaign season, we heard complaints from those covering the election about how nasty and trivial the campaign had become. It would often be compared wistfully to a bygone era of American politics before social media brought the twin plagues of pettiness and excessive informality on the unsuspecting American voter. And while it can be fun to take a stroll down memory lane, the youthful political press is indulging its nostalgia in an odd way: by reprising the 2008 election.

At least that’s the impression one gets reading the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s effect on the emerging field of Democrats seeking to succeed Barack Obama. Politico reports today:

Since it is really too early to ask this question, let’s do it: Can anybody stop Hillary? 

Can any of the other Democrats in the race stop Hillary Clinton from getting the nomination? Who? And how?

Sorry–that was Politico reporting in 2007. Here’s Politico reporting today:

But even as they eye a move from the statehouse to the White House, there’s broad recognition among the chief executives that the next generation of Democrats may have to wait longer than four more years to take their place as Barack Obama’s heir….

Among the Democratic governors who descended on Washington this weekend for the National Governors Association winter meeting, the only difference of opinion when it came to Secretary Clinton was whether she would clear the 2016 field entirely or merely loom colossus-like over the race until, and upon entering, the campaign.

To Politico’s credit, they acknowledge that this all sounds a bit familiar: “Clinton wasn’t supposed to lose the nomination in 2008, either; that is, until a freshman senator from Illinois came along with a message of Hope and Change.” But on the other hand: “she’s in an even stronger place today than she was then, coming off a stint as Obama’s loyal Secretary of State and showing up in polls as the most popular political figure in America.”

Maybe. High approval marks for secretaries of state are common and bipartisan–and don’t usually translate into anything more than a pat on the back. There’s also the possibility that part of Clinton’s high approval numbers at Foggy Bottom had something to do with the fact that voters much preferred her there to being in the White House, which is why she didn’t win her party’s nomination despite her supposed inevitability.

There’s no denying that Clinton would be a strong candidate in 2016. Her name identification will of course help, as will her ability to raise money. Not only will she have one former president on the campaign trail with her in her husband, but she’ll probably have at least the tacit support from Obama as well. But the most telling bit of the story–and easily the most frustrating to the other Democratic contenders–was this:

It’s an unprecedented scenario, noted some of the governors: a first lady-turned-senator-turned-presidential candidate-turned Secretary of State with 100-percent name ID and deep popularity who would, oh yes, make history as the nation’s first female president.

Even the most impressive health care delivery reforms and far-reaching gun control restrictions pale by comparison.

Translation: identity politics still rule the Democratic Party. That doesn’t mean a Clinton campaign would be nothing but empty sloganeering and personality cult politics, as Obama’s was in 2008. He was always more of an ideologue who still can’t seem to get out of campaign mode long enough to govern. Clinton’s strengths are in the policy arena; she’s detail-oriented, tireless, and a formidable debater.

Nonetheless, as Democrats see it, her biggest strength may be that if Obama’s second term sputters, as so often happens, Clinton is the kind of candidate who could run to succeed Obama without having to defend eight years of Democratic policies coming out of the White House because she could raise the argument above discussion of policy altogether. Just look at the two issues, for example, that the Politico story brought up: guns and health care reform. Obamacare is not now and has never been popular, and by the time Obama leaves office it may very well be even less so. And gun control has been a losing issue for liberal Democrats on the national stage for quite some time.

Democrats would really like to keep passing relatively unpopular legislation and not have to own it or be punished by the voters for it going forward. It would be a neat trick; ironically, nominating one of Obama’s high-profile Cabinet members may be the their best chance to pull it off.


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