Commentary Magazine


Topic: 2016 presidential elections

For Dems, All Roads Lead to Hillary

The conventional wisdom on whether the shellacking experienced by the Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections was good for Hillary Clinton’s prospects is shifting slightly. It began even before the elections, when the writing was on the wall. “If Democrats lose the Senate, the 2016 Democratic nominee can run against Congress and Senate Democrats would be poised to recapture it in two years,” a senior Capitol Hill Democrat told TIME magazine’s Zeke Miller for an October 15 story.

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The conventional wisdom on whether the shellacking experienced by the Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections was good for Hillary Clinton’s prospects is shifting slightly. It began even before the elections, when the writing was on the wall. “If Democrats lose the Senate, the 2016 Democratic nominee can run against Congress and Senate Democrats would be poised to recapture it in two years,” a senior Capitol Hill Democrat told TIME magazine’s Zeke Miller for an October 15 story.

Miller continued: “In Democrats’ telling, likely-candidate Hillary Clinton could run on a narrative of Republican obstruction to passing legislation on issues like income inequality, raising the minimum wage, and equal pay for women.” Indeed, President Obama’s attempts to run against a “do-nothing Congress” were always ridiculous, since the Democrats controlled the Senate, shut the GOP out of the process, and everything had to go through Harry Reid (and thus, Obama) to make it to the Senate floor. But once the Republicans actually won the Senate and controlled both houses of Congress, the thinking went, the fiction of a do-nothing Congress controlled by the other side becomes plausible.

After the election turned out even worse for Democrats than expected, this spin held steady. It was argued that when Democrats lost the race to succeed Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, it weakened an already shaky prospective challenger to Clinton. And as one Democratic operative told the Washington Post, Republicans would likely spend the next two years trying to undo some of the Obama administration’s handiwork, enabling Hillary to “both make the case against the Republicans while currying favor with the Obama base.”

As time went on, however, the Democrats’ attempts to spin the loss caused a clash of two self-soothing narratives. The idea that a Republican majority could help Hillary be the savior in 2016 ran up against the White House’s preferred narrative: that the low turnout of the midterms compared to presidential elections meant the Democrats really didn’t have a crisis on their hands. They didn’t need a savior because, they argued, demographics still favored them in presidential years. That meant that not only were they in good shape for 2016, but that a good turnout could give them back the Senate only two years after losing it.

Such consolation was temporary, however, when Democrats realized the implications of their spin: gridlock, not liberal triumph. After all, if they would struggle in midterm congressional elections, it meant they could kiss their emerging Democratic majority goodbye. All of a sudden it didn’t matter quite so much if 2014 was good for Hillary’s 2016 hopes: they already held a built-in advantage in presidential elections. And yet, here’s the situation in which they found themselves the morning after, as the Washington Post reported:

While the GOP is likely to control 54 percent of all Senate seats and 56 percent (or so) of the House come January, it also will now control more than two-thirds of state legislative chambers across the country — as in nearly seven in 10. And given Republicans also won at least 31 governorships, they are basically in control of the state government in 24 states. That could soon hit 25 if they win the still-undetermined governor’s race in Alaska.

That meant, according to the WaPo, “47.8 percent of Americans will now be led by GOP-controlled governments with little/no ability for Democrats to thwart them. …Democrats, meanwhile, will govern unilaterally in states with just 15.6 percent of Americans — less than one-sixth of the country. And that’s with the nation’s biggest state, California, firmly in their back pocket. Without that, they would govern over just 3.5 percent (less than one-25th) of the nation’s residents.”

The new spin was that Democrats had to find some way to animate their base so they could chip away at local Republican dominance. One way to do that would be to draft a challenger to Hillary Clinton from the left. There are not many to choose from after Elizabeth Warren, who almost certainly isn’t running. Jim Webb isn’t a threat to Hillary, and neither is the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders. What to do?

A better idea, as Noam Scheiber points out in a smart piece for the New Republic, is to expand the coalition. That’s what Republicans did to win these midterms so resoundingly. Democrats need to win back some–not all, nor even most, just some–white working-class voters, Scheiber writes. Democrats’ ability to do so has deteriorated because the populism that appeals to some of their voters repels other voters, and the same goes for social issues.

What can Democrats do to solve this puzzle? Scheiber has good news: once again, it’s a problem that is in the process of solving itself. Thus:

there’s a coalition available to Democrats that knits together working class minorities and college-educated voters and slices heavily into the GOP’s margins among the white working class. … The basis of the coalition isn’t a retreat from social progressivism, but making economic populism the party’s centerpiece, as opposed to the mix of mildly progressive economic policies (marginally higher taxes on the wealthy, marginally tougher regulation of Wall Street) and staunchly progressive social policies that define the party today.

Scheiber raises one glaring weakness in this strategy: Hillary’s not a great fit for the role. And that, in the end, tells us why Democrats will end up with Hillary anyway, and that even if she doesn’t give them their permanent majority she’s still their best choice. The Democrats don’t have anyone on their bench who is both a populist firebrand and can win. So we’re back to square one: Democrats can run a populist from Hillary’s left. Hillary will mimic whatever populism she needs to, even though she doesn’t mean it, to win the nomination. And the Occupy Democrats will recede back into irrelevance.

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Hillary Learning Wrong Midterm Lessons

If you thought something important was missing from the extensive coverage afforded the midterm elections this week, you were right. Amid the deluge of interviews and analyses of the stunning Republican victory, there was complete silence from one of the most important political players in the country: Hillary Clinton. The former first lady/secretary of state was presumably in a secure undisclosed Democratic location once the returns started coming in so as to avoid having to say anything about the defeat of her party and some of the people she worked hard to elect. But now that the dust is settling, the “ready for Hillary” crowd thinks it will soon be safe for her to come out of hiding and begin the process of allowing Democrats to coronate her as their next presidential nominee. But, if the report about their thinking in the New York Times is any indication, it looks like Hillary and her acolytes are choosing to learn all the wrong lessons from the midterms.

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If you thought something important was missing from the extensive coverage afforded the midterm elections this week, you were right. Amid the deluge of interviews and analyses of the stunning Republican victory, there was complete silence from one of the most important political players in the country: Hillary Clinton. The former first lady/secretary of state was presumably in a secure undisclosed Democratic location once the returns started coming in so as to avoid having to say anything about the defeat of her party and some of the people she worked hard to elect. But now that the dust is settling, the “ready for Hillary” crowd thinks it will soon be safe for her to come out of hiding and begin the process of allowing Democrats to coronate her as their next presidential nominee. But, if the report about their thinking in the New York Times is any indication, it looks like Hillary and her acolytes are choosing to learn all the wrong lessons from the midterms.

According to this very friendly insider report in the Times, Hillary’s crowd is actually encouraged by this week’s election results. While they indicate that the candidate will take her time and conduct a listening tour of the country to help her figure out what stands and issues to campaign on, they believe there’s no point in delaying the start of her campaign much longer. The Clintonites think having a Republican Congress in power will give her an easy foil to run against in 2016. And though many of her allies were beaten on Tuesday, they are actually taking solace from one of their party’s most humiliating defeats — the loss in deep blue Maryland’s governor’s race — since that can be interpreted as a rejection of outgoing Governor Martin O’Malley, who may challenge Clinton in the presidential primaries.

All three of these conclusions should trouble those who are rooting for Clinton to be elected in 2016.

First, the idea that Hillary will be spending the coming months in much the same way she began her career in elective office when running for a New York Senate seat, reminds us of her greatest weakness as a politician.

Unlike most people who are running for president, Clinton never seems to know what exactly she stands for except her own advancement. Listening is one thing, trying to concoct yet another new political identity on the fly is quite another. Bereft as she is of any political principles, she can never decide whether she is a centrist who can play the adult in the room or an Elizabeth Warren-style left-wing populist. Clinton may believe if she listens to enough smart people and takes good notes, she will learn her lessons and be able to present herself as a plausible president. But as she has repeatedly demonstrated this past year on first her book tour and then her campaign appearances for what Rand Paul’s staff aptly labeled “Hillary’s losers,” the transparent inauthenticity of her approach as well as her lack of the natural campaign skills her husband possesses, inevitably leads to gaffes and embarrassment. Anyone who expects a different result this time is bound to be disappointed.

Second, the facile optimism about the GOP victory being good news for Clinton shows few in her circle are thinking seriously about the results.

It is true that many Democrats think Clinton can profit from running against what they will label a “do-nothing” or “obstructionist” Congress regardless of whether these descriptions are accurate. But the notion that Republicans will remain the sole owners of Washington gridlock in the next two years is a dubious one. If the House and the Senate act in concert, as they should, it will be Obama who will be the one saying “no” via vetoes, not the right-wingers in the House or Senate. That will make it harder for someone who will effectively be running for a third term for Obama to absolve herself and her party of all connection to the nation’s problems.

Just as important, the returns reminded us that without the magic pull of the president at the top of the Democratic ticket, there is no guarantee of the sort of massive turnout of minorities and young people that characterized the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Clinton may hope the historic nature of her own candidacy will enable her to pull off the same feat as Obama did. But we know Clinton can’t hold a candle to the president when it comes to political appeal. The midterms proved that the Democrats’ reliance on their old memes about the beastliness of the GOP has run out of steam. Hillary will need to think up something new and that brings with it as many dangers as advantages. As Michael Barone writes, the shrinkage of Obama’s blue empire this year may well indicate that Democrats are losing ground. While the 2016 electorate will probably be more favorable for Democrats than that of 2014, it may not be enough to convince voters to allow Obama’s party yet another term in office.

Last, any relief about O’Malley’s discomfit at the Maryland results only serves to reinforce the lack of sense that always seems to characterize Hillary’s camp. O’Malley, the most deferential to Clinton of all her potential Democrat challengers, was never going to be a threat to Hillary. Her real trouble will come from the hard left as Bernie Sanders and the rest of the Elizabeth Warren crowd cheering him on, will push her away from centrist positions if she hasn’t already abandoned them.

Though Hillary Clinton is the certain Democratic presidential nominee and will enter 2016 with considerable advantages, nothing that happened this week should be considered good news for her candidacy. That Clinton’s camp seems incapable of figuring this out as they prepare for another fake listening tour, is a harbinger of trouble for her efforts.

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Why Obama Won’t “Reboot”

Just in time for the dreaded sixth-year midterms, Politico Magazine has a long article trying to answer the question: “Can Obama Reboot?” The better question is the subtitle: “Does he even want to?” Indeed, considering the record of recent presidents and the overall power of the presidency–grown even more expansive, as so often happens, in this latest administration–if Obama wants to change course, he can. What has differentiated him from his immediate predecessors is that they were willing to do so, and Obama has not shown much interest in learning from his mistakes. The reason for that, it turns out, is buried deep within the Politico profile of a very self-pitying president.

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Just in time for the dreaded sixth-year midterms, Politico Magazine has a long article trying to answer the question: “Can Obama Reboot?” The better question is the subtitle: “Does he even want to?” Indeed, considering the record of recent presidents and the overall power of the presidency–grown even more expansive, as so often happens, in this latest administration–if Obama wants to change course, he can. What has differentiated him from his immediate predecessors is that they were willing to do so, and Obama has not shown much interest in learning from his mistakes. The reason for that, it turns out, is buried deep within the Politico profile of a very self-pitying president.

The story begins with the midterms and how Obama loves to campaign but Democratic candidates don’t want to be seen with him. Then there are the absurd statements of King Obama the Underdog: “More than anything, Obama’s loathing for Washington, an attitude that reads as ennui to outsiders, has hardened into a sullen resignation at being trapped in a broken system he failed to change, advisers told us.”

Well, considering he’s been running vapid campaigns, cynically attempting to damage the credibility of both Congress and the Supreme Court, overseeing a weaponized IRS, further entrenching special interests, and speaking of those who disagree with him as his “enemies,” it’s no surprise the status quo hasn’t budged. Obama has been the status quo, politics-as-usual president. He didn’t “fail to change” anything; he refused to change, and he failed.

The story continues with testimony from others in Washington that Obama seems ready to give up; that his my-way-or-the-highway routine was no bluff, and now he’d like to pack up and be on his way. It’s enough to almost make you feel sorry for the man, until you remember he’s the leader of the free world and hasn’t stopped complaining from day one. Additionally, any sympathy the reader might have for Obama isn’t requited; we soon find out that Obama doesn’t think much of the voters, who don’t seem to think much of him.

The key paragraph comes when the Politico reporters discuss the possibility that Obama will be better off once the midterms are behind him–even if they’re disastrous for Democrats–because that means the next election is a presidential-year contest. And an Obama administration aide makes a revealing argument:

“It is important to recognize in this election a tiny fraction of voters will vote in a handful of states that are terrible for the president,” the senior White House aide said. “There are like, two Americas—there is a midterm America and a presidential-election-year America. We would be making a big mistake, heading into a presidential election year where we are not on the ballot but our party is, to make a whole series of strategic decisions based on the politics of an electorate that will not exist two years from now.”

There are two major problems with this line of reasoning. The first is that it represents a base-only messaging strategy. What the Obama official calls “an electorate that will not exist” is actually the percentage of voters who care enough about politics and policy to stay engaged for their congressional and gubernatorial elections. These are the more informed voters. The electorate that Obama–and national Democrats–much prefer is this midterm electorate plus their base, which is made up of voters who turn out for the cultish leadership campaigns, popularity contests, and divisive and condescending identity grievance politics of the presidential campaigns Democrats have mastered.

The problem is that this strategy may be running out of steam, as Jonathan wrote earlier. This year, the White House’s “war on women” has flopped so spectacularly in blue states that Democratic Colorado Senator Mark Udall is now getting heckled by a Democratic donor over his obsession with reproductive politics. Why won’t he talk about anything else? they wonder. Because Democrats have been programmed not to. That may change, even as Obama clearly believes the Democrats will be gearing up to repeat this strategy in 2016.

The other problem with the Obama administration’s iteration of “like, two Americas”–the bro version of the classic trope–is that it reveals the extent to which Obama and those around him misunderstand the basic structure of American democracy. Maybe this is deliberate–delegitimize that which you disapprove of–but it’s still a mistake.

Obama would like to believe that the midterm elections are not really a reproach of his governing or a wholesale rejection of his policies because if you ask everyone who votes in presidential years, he gets higher marks. But in fact the midterms are just such a reproach because the Congress is the only means by which voters can check the ambitions and agenda of a president, since they can’t vote for Supreme Court justices. This is especially true of the sixth-year midterms, when there will not be another chance to vote out the president.

Obama seems to think that any vote that is not a direct referendum on his policies is a poor guide to crafting an overarching party agenda. That’s wrong, and it helps explain why Obama can, but probably won’t, “reboot.”

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Race-Baiting and the Democrats’ Future

With the midterm campaign coming down to its last days, its been clear for weeks that the only way Democrats believe they can save some of their endangered red-state Senate incumbents is to play the race card. Both Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan have sought to identify Republicans with racism and even, in Hagan’s case, with the killing of Trayvon Martin or the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, in order to mobilize African-American voters. While these tactics are based on outrageous slanders, the decision to play the race card is logical if not scrupulous. The coalition that elected Barack Obama to the presidency twice relies on huge numbers of minorities as well as young people and unmarried women turning out to vote. The outcome on Tuesday will be largely dependent on whether that turnout resembles the ones of 2008 and 2012 or that of 2010 when Republicans won a midterm landslide. But whether or not the Democrats’ race-baiting tactics succeed, the real question facing the party is whether they are right to do so. And by that I don’t refer to whether the decision to sink this low is ethical but whether it is smart.

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With the midterm campaign coming down to its last days, its been clear for weeks that the only way Democrats believe they can save some of their endangered red-state Senate incumbents is to play the race card. Both Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan have sought to identify Republicans with racism and even, in Hagan’s case, with the killing of Trayvon Martin or the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, in order to mobilize African-American voters. While these tactics are based on outrageous slanders, the decision to play the race card is logical if not scrupulous. The coalition that elected Barack Obama to the presidency twice relies on huge numbers of minorities as well as young people and unmarried women turning out to vote. The outcome on Tuesday will be largely dependent on whether that turnout resembles the ones of 2008 and 2012 or that of 2010 when Republicans won a midterm landslide. But whether or not the Democrats’ race-baiting tactics succeed, the real question facing the party is whether they are right to do so. And by that I don’t refer to whether the decision to sink this low is ethical but whether it is smart.

The answer from Democratic operatives eager to preserve the party’s Senate majority as well as to lay the foundation for another smashing presidential win in 2016 would probably be something along the lines of declaring that all’s fair in love, war, and politics. If getting African-Americans to the polls requires cynically recycling racial incitement, then so be it. Moreover they see it as no more nor less ethical than Republican hacks employing concerns over issues like gay marriage or immigration in order to get their base to turn out.

But just as Republicans have learned the lesson in recent election cycles that excessive pandering to social conservatives has unforeseen consequences in the form of damaging blowback with moderates and independents, so, too, Democrats need to be wary of becoming the party of race incitement.

Waving the bloody shirt of Ferguson seems like a good idea to those who believe, not wrongly, that many African-Americans view such incidents as evidence of the enduring legacy of the nation’s history of racism. But the line between sending subtle hints about such issues and outright race baiting has clearly been crossed when, as Hagan did, Republicans are falsely accused of playing a role in killing young African-Americans. Nor did Landrieu do herself any favors by publicly complaining about the treatment of blacks and women in the contemporary south.

Both parties desperately need their bases to be enthusiastic about elections if they are to win. But both also need to remember that winning electoral majorities requires more than mobilization of true believers. Republicans have become obsessed with appeasing their core voters and paid for it at times by being slammed, often unfairly, as overly identified with extremists. But it seems never to occur to Democrats that over-the-top appeals to their base will exact a cost with the rest of the electorate.

In the past two years, we’ve heard a great deal of Democratic triumphalism about how changing demographics will ensure them an unshakable electoral majority for years, if not decades, to come. But as much as they certainly benefit heavily from the overwhelming margins they rack up among blacks and Hispanics, the notion that this alone will create a permanent Democratic hegemony in Washington is spurious. In the end, all parties must win over the vital center of the American public square. As Ronald Reagan proved, they need not sacrifice their ideology or their principles to do so. But when they go too far, they inevitably run aground.

That’s the real danger of a reliance on race baiting for the Democrats. It’s not just that African-Americans will grow tired of such obvious exploitation but that by linking themselves so firmly with such dubious tactics and extreme rhetoric, they drown out any reasoned arguments they might put forward for their party.

In 2008 and 2012, Democrats were able to rouse their base with positive messages of empowerment that revolved around the historic and deeply symbolic candidacies of Barack Obama while at the same time offering an effective if ultimately spurious promise of hope and change to the entire country. But in 2014, as Obama’s popularity has waned and then collapsed, they are forced to do verbal gymnastics as candidates seek to distance themselves from the president and his policies while simultaneously seeking to appeal to minorities that still revere him with negative race-based slurs about Republicans.

Thus, even if these tactics work to turn out blacks—and it is by no means clear that it will come anywhere close to the 2012 levels that Democrats desperately need—the party may be doing itself real damage with the public in ways that will harm their presidential candidate in 2016. As with other misleading memes they have beat to death, such as the spurious war on women that Republicans are supposed to be waging, Democrats are finding that they are fast exhausting the electorate’s patience and are running out of ideas. As much as playing the race card seems like a foolproof if unsavory tactic, it may not be as smart a move as they think it is.

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Is Hillary Rooting for a GOP Senate?

For Democrats looking for some early consolation heading into a midterm election in which their party seems fated to suffer the loss of the Senate, the New York Times provides some comfort. A piece by John Harwood in today’s paper claims that while a Republican Senate would blight the last two years of the Obama presidency, it might well guarantee the election of Hillary Clinton in 2016. But while there is a superficial logic to his thesis the notion that the former secretary of state should be rooting for Mitch McConnell to become majority leader next January is a bit of a stretch.

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For Democrats looking for some early consolation heading into a midterm election in which their party seems fated to suffer the loss of the Senate, the New York Times provides some comfort. A piece by John Harwood in today’s paper claims that while a Republican Senate would blight the last two years of the Obama presidency, it might well guarantee the election of Hillary Clinton in 2016. But while there is a superficial logic to his thesis the notion that the former secretary of state should be rooting for Mitch McConnell to become majority leader next January is a bit of a stretch.

The argument that a Republican Senate would help Clinton’s presidential hopes is simple. If the GOP controls both the House and the Senate heading into the 2016 election, that will make it even easier for Democrats to run against what they will undoubtedly label a “do-nothing” or “obstructionist” Congress. The confrontations between the Republicans and the White House would escalate in 2015 with the president seeking to govern on his own via executive orders. At the same time, as Politico notes in an interesting preview of 2015, McConnell is planning a series of actions meant to stymie Obama’s attempts to circumvent constitutional checks and balances that could lead to a veto battle and Republicans daring Obama to shut down the government in order to force them to fund his pet projects. These struggles will feed into the media’s favorite meme about dysfunctional government in which both parties will, not without some justification, be damned as part of the problem rather than the solution.

But the notion Harwood advances that this will allow Clinton to present herself as an outside-the-Beltway figure who is not tied to this fracas is hard to swallow.

The longer an unpopular president and his more-unpopular partisan adversaries battle to a standstill, the easier it is to offer herself as a fresh start.

“It would be bad for the country,” said Stanley B. Greenberg, President Bill Clinton’s former pollster, but “total gridlock would allow Hillary to be the change.”

Mrs. Clinton has had as many political personality changes as she’s had hairdos in her decades in the public eye, but the idea that this grizzled veteran of Washington could present herself as “the change” that voters want is laughable.

Clinton’s in a strong position to win the presidency no matter what happens in November 2014. As the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination, unless a credible left-wing alternative emerges to force her to abandon her criticisms of Obama’s foreign-policy failures, she has already begun the pivot to the center that most candidates can’t attempt until after they’ve won their party’s nod. More than that, as the potential first woman to be elected to the presidency, she has a compelling narrative as well as the loyalty of most party activists even if they are to her left on many issues. And with so many Republicans defending Senate seats in 2016 as the class of 2010 seeks reelection, Democrats will, with the help of their traditionally large presidential-year turnouts, have a chance to take the Senate back.

But after hanging around the capital in one guise or another and engaging in some of the nastiest gutter fights there for more than 20 years, Clinton can’t pretend to be a breath of fresh air in hyper-partisan Washington. Nor, after serving as secretary of state for four years, can she completely evade the tag of running for a third term for the Obama administration.

Just as important, if, as is likely, the next two years are marked by more bitter partisan warfare, the likely Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 won’t be able to stand aloof from Obama’s struggles with Congress. While the GOP House and Senate will undoubtedly make for attractive targets for Clinton’s scorn, that will tie her even more closely to Obama’s autocratic governing style rather than allowing her to distance herself from his troubled presidency. Republicans will be able to point out that Clinton’s own positions on the environment and immigration will make her just as likely to try to override the will of Congress as Obama has been.

As Harwood points out, President Obama will likely see a Clinton victory as the best chance to solidify his legacy. So will the voters. Moreover, Clinton’s opponent in 2016 won’t be McConnell or House Speaker John Boehner, much though she would love to run against either of them. In contrast to Clinton, the Republican nominee may turn out to be someone who actually is from outside the Beltway or one of those members of the Senate who are seeking to stop the business-as-usual approach to politics that Clinton embodies.

It may be that Clinton’s strengths will enable her to overcome the handicap of being tied to an unpopular and unsuccessful incumbent. But a Republican Senate won’t make that any easier. The loss of the Senate will be a body blow to liberal plans to expand government even more than Obama has already done. Doing so may not stop Clinton from winning in 2016, but it won’t make it any easier for her either.

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Team Obama to Hillary: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

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Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

It was perhaps inevitable that Obama loyalists would come forward and paint a picture of Hillary as fundamentally dishonest and engaged in self-aggrandizement in the pursuit of power. But it’s still somewhat surprising to see this all play out so far from the 2016 presidential election. As Jonathan wrote yesterday, Clinton’s interview signaled that she is already running her general-election campaign: with no serious lefty challenger, she has no need to play to the base on foreign affairs. Obama’s defenders have, however, cast her as her own rival by seeking to portray the presidential aspirant as she was during her time as secretary of state, not the new and improved “neocon” Hillary.

The Obama pushback has taken two forms. The more entertaining is David Axelrod’s shot across the bow this morning. In Clinton’s interview, she disparaged Obama’s foreign-policy mantra, telling Goldberg: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Today, Axelrod fired back, tweeting:

Just to clarify: “Don’t do stupid stuff” means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.

In other words, “don’t do stupid stuff” as an organizing principle is only necessary because people like Clinton insisted on doing stupid stuff. Of course, by this logic Obama is hardly in the clear: Democrats, including Obama’s Cabinet, were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq war. Axelrod may be trying to insult Clinton’s intelligence, but he’s also reminding the public that, accordingly, the president has surrounded himself with dullards.

In addition to the enlightening Axelrod vs. Clinton “no, you’re a stupidhead” debate, White House officials also told the New York Times that when her opinion actually mattered in the formation of policy–and when it was offered behind closed doors–Clinton wasn’t exactly the bold outlier:

Still, when Mrs. Clinton says that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force” against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” the suggestion is that Mr. Obama’s refusal to arm the rebels might end up being a singular misjudgment. But at the time of the Obama administration’s internal debate over that decision, several officials said, Mrs. Clinton’s advocacy was far less thunderous: The United States had tried every diplomatic gambit with Syria, she said, and nothing else had worked, so why not try funneling weapons to the moderate rebels.

As Mrs. Clinton stakes out her own foreign policy positions in advance of a possible campaign for the White House, it is only natural that some of her statements will not be entirely in sync with her record as secretary of state, when she served at the pleasure of the president.

At the end of her tenure, for example, Mrs. Clinton wrote a memo to Mr. Obama recommending that the United States lift its half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba. It was not a position that she seriously advocated while at the State Department, officials said.

The Times article draws attention to the fact that Clinton was hardly a dissenting voice in the Obama administration. She sometimes disagreed, but equivocated when doing so. And that gets to the real significance of this row: both sides, Obama and Clinton, are aiming for the other’s Achilles’ heel.

Obama is vulnerable right now on the topic of former officials trying desperately to distance themselves from him. Bob Gates’s memoir caused a bit of a stir for criticizing his former boss before Obama was out of office. After leaving the State Department, Vali Nasr slammed Obama’s foreign-policy conduct. And now Clinton is doing the same. Gates and Clinton are particularly harmful to Obama, since they were both Cabinet members and are both vastly superior intellects to their successors, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry. Obama’s current Cabinet cannot match the credibility of his previous Cabinet, and it’s his previous Cabinet going public with their disapproval.

For Clinton, her weakness continues to be her Clintonian lack of principle and authenticity. Whatever their reasons for backing Clinton, it’s doubtful any of her supporters thinks Clinton believes anything. To Clinton there are no facts, only focus groups. She is yet another representation of the modern Democratic Party’s identity politics: it isn’t what she thinks that matters, but what she represents. The Obama team’s rebuttal of her attempts to throw the sitting president under the bus constitutes a warning to be careful what she wishes for. She may want to pivot to the general election already, but non-liberals might not be so enthused about her constant attempts at misdirection and reinvention.

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The GOP’s Ongoing Challenges

Republicans have plenty of reasons to believe that the 2014 mid-term elections will be favorable, and maybe very favorable, for them. But that doesn’t necessarily prefigure success in 2016, as this story by Dan Balz of the Washington Post demonstrates.

Mr. Balz asked a veteran of GOP presidential campaigns which, if any, of the recent battleground states are likely to become more Republican by 2016? Answer: Very few. According to Balz:

From 1992-2012, Democrats built a base that rivals or exceeds that of the Republicans in the earlier period [1980-2000]. Eighteen states and the District have voted Democratic in each of the six presidential elections. They represent a total 242 electoral votes, according to the current allocation. Three other states, with a total of 15 electoral votes, have backed the Democrats five times.

Meanwhile, Republicans won 13 states in those six elections, but because most of them were smaller states, their electoral votes totaled just 102. The biggest consistent GOP state in this period has been Texas, with 38 electoral votes. Five other states backed the GOP nominee in five of the six elections, for an additional 56 electoral votes.

Adding together the states that voted Republican or Democratic in at least four of the six elections gave Democrats 281 electoral votes and Republicans 219. Only two states — Colorado and Florida, with a total of 38 electoral votes — were won three times for each party in those six elections.

Key states that were once genuine toss up states, or leaned Republican, are now much more reliably Democratic. “Given the current alignment, the Republicans must find states that have been voting Democratic and convert them to their column in 2016,” according to Balz.

Will they succeed?

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Republicans have plenty of reasons to believe that the 2014 mid-term elections will be favorable, and maybe very favorable, for them. But that doesn’t necessarily prefigure success in 2016, as this story by Dan Balz of the Washington Post demonstrates.

Mr. Balz asked a veteran of GOP presidential campaigns which, if any, of the recent battleground states are likely to become more Republican by 2016? Answer: Very few. According to Balz:

From 1992-2012, Democrats built a base that rivals or exceeds that of the Republicans in the earlier period [1980-2000]. Eighteen states and the District have voted Democratic in each of the six presidential elections. They represent a total 242 electoral votes, according to the current allocation. Three other states, with a total of 15 electoral votes, have backed the Democrats five times.

Meanwhile, Republicans won 13 states in those six elections, but because most of them were smaller states, their electoral votes totaled just 102. The biggest consistent GOP state in this period has been Texas, with 38 electoral votes. Five other states backed the GOP nominee in five of the six elections, for an additional 56 electoral votes.

Adding together the states that voted Republican or Democratic in at least four of the six elections gave Democrats 281 electoral votes and Republicans 219. Only two states — Colorado and Florida, with a total of 38 electoral votes — were won three times for each party in those six elections.

Key states that were once genuine toss up states, or leaned Republican, are now much more reliably Democratic. “Given the current alignment, the Republicans must find states that have been voting Democratic and convert them to their column in 2016,” according to Balz.

Will they succeed?

William H. Frey, a demographer and census expert at the Brookings Institution, analyzed nine key states and found the following: five—Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia—are definitely moving toward the Democrats because of their growing diversity. Three states—Iowa, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin—are genuine toss-ups but aren’t moving in the GOP’s direction. Ohio is one state that could become more hospitable to Republicans, because aging white baby boomers continue to make up a large part of the population there.

Beyond those nine states, Frey “sees some glimmers of hope for Republicans in Michigan and Pennsylvania, if the GOP can find the right candidate.” On the other hand, Frey envisions potential problems for the party in states such as Arizona and Georgia, which he said could be toss-ups by 2016 and could lean Democratic in the long run.

Balz includes the caveat that nothing is static in politics, candidate quality matters, and President Obama’s standing with the electorate will influence how people vote in 2016. Still, he concludes, “Republicans have considerable ground to recapture to win the presidency, and underlying trends have not been helping them.”

The danger for the GOP is that in focusing on 2014, it fails to do the work–in terms of policy reforms, governing vision, outreach, tone and countenance, and recruitment–that is necessary for it to win the presidency in 2016. It turns out that the 2010 mid-term election was something of a false dawn for Republicans, at least when it came to 2012. They would be fools to commit the same error again or underestimate the magnitude of the long-term challenges still facing the GOP.    

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Hillary Clinton and the End of the Presidential Campaign

The “perpetual campaign” is a term we have accustomed ourselves to using while it is still a bit of an exaggeration, except in the case of a first-term president consumed by winning a second term. In all other cases, the speculation about who will run for president precedes the actual campaign. But that actual campaign’s start date keeps getting earlier, while the speculation has become perpetual. What happens when the two finally overlap? A tear in the time-space continuum? Nope, the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

That’s one of the takeaways buried in Maggie Haberman’s profile of Hillary Clinton’s “shadow campaign.” Haberman writes about Clinton’s meeting with party strategists about a presidential run last year, and about the bevy of outside groups, super-PACs, Obama campaign veterans, and others who have created “a virtual campaign in waiting” for her, at once demonstrating her potential strength as a candidate and the personality-cult politics that have the Democrats so desperate to avoid any internal conflict over the 2016 nomination.

The effort to scare off potential rivals includes language that is already seeping into news stories. Haberman tells us that these groups sometimes cooperate and sometimes compete “to prepare a final career act for the former senator and secretary of state, whose legacy as the most powerful woman in the history of American politics is already secure”–a dubious assertion at best. (More powerful, already, than Edith Wilson? Absurd.) But Haberman does discuss the fact that there are some close to Clinton who would prefer she not run:

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The “perpetual campaign” is a term we have accustomed ourselves to using while it is still a bit of an exaggeration, except in the case of a first-term president consumed by winning a second term. In all other cases, the speculation about who will run for president precedes the actual campaign. But that actual campaign’s start date keeps getting earlier, while the speculation has become perpetual. What happens when the two finally overlap? A tear in the time-space continuum? Nope, the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

That’s one of the takeaways buried in Maggie Haberman’s profile of Hillary Clinton’s “shadow campaign.” Haberman writes about Clinton’s meeting with party strategists about a presidential run last year, and about the bevy of outside groups, super-PACs, Obama campaign veterans, and others who have created “a virtual campaign in waiting” for her, at once demonstrating her potential strength as a candidate and the personality-cult politics that have the Democrats so desperate to avoid any internal conflict over the 2016 nomination.

The effort to scare off potential rivals includes language that is already seeping into news stories. Haberman tells us that these groups sometimes cooperate and sometimes compete “to prepare a final career act for the former senator and secretary of state, whose legacy as the most powerful woman in the history of American politics is already secure”–a dubious assertion at best. (More powerful, already, than Edith Wilson? Absurd.) But Haberman does discuss the fact that there are some close to Clinton who would prefer she not run:

Among their concerns: Why put herself through the campaign pulverizer again and risk ending her groundbreaking career on a low note? She could still wield plenty of influence from the outside ­— and enjoy a normal, fulfilling family life for the first time in who knows how long. People insist her health is not a worry, but it was just a year ago that she suffered a blood clot in her head after fainting.

Chief among those in the “no” camp is Clinton’s chief of staff at the State Department, Cheryl Mills, according to several people familiar with her thinking. Another close Clinton confidante, Maggie Williams, who took the helm of the 2008 campaign after a staff shake-up, is also said to have reservations for the same reason — the DNA-altering experience of a modern presidential campaign in which nothing is guaranteed.

All reasonable concerns. Then we learn this:

Several sources said in interviews that her team is discussing how she will weigh in on policy debates over the course of the next year. She is working closely with clusters of aides on different policy initiatives — one involves child development, and Clinton is also being advised to address income inequality. Her memoir about her time at the State Department, initially expected for June, is likely to be out later in the summer, putting a book tour closer to the time when she would campaign for candidates in the midterms. That’s also closer to when she’s likely to announce her plans, after the November election.

She’s going to announce her plans after the November (2014!) midterms? Of course, Haberman doesn’t say–because no one knows–how far after the early-November elections. But the formulation is a funny one to use if it’s far after those elections and into 2015. Even if she doesn’t formally announce, it appears that she will make it abundantly clear–not just to her inner circle but to anyone paying attention–whether she’ll run right around the time of those midterms.

That means we’ll finally have, in actuality, the perpetual campaign, which in turn means we won’t really have a presidential “campaign” at all. The prospect is horrifying, though since Republicans are less worshipful of their candidates (they can’t nominate Zombie Reagan, after all), perhaps they’ll put the breaks on the process. But if Clinton appears to gain from the gamble, it won’t be so easy.

Additionally, some of those who might try to convince Clinton not to run are going to need better arguments. Specifically, those who don’t want Clinton to “risk ending her groundbreaking career on a low note” are missing the point of her “groundbreaking career.” The Clintons are the ultimate political power couple because of their single-minded pursuit of political power. After leaving the White House Hillary was offered a Senate seat, so she took it. Then she was offered the job as secretary of state, despite a total lack of relevant experience, so she took it.

And her term as secretary of state was famous for her refusal to get involved in serious efforts that could fail, thus haunting her presidential ambitions. She wasn’t a senator or secretary of state for its own sake–though in fairness she wasn’t the first nor will she be the last political personality driven by an ambition for power and always reaching for the next rung on the ladder. What she wanted, and what she presumably still wants, is to be president of the United States. An advisor or friend seeking to persuade her not to run will need more of an argument than “Hey, you had a good run.”

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