Commentary Magazine


Topic: 2016 presidential elections

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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