Hillary Gets Hot, But For Democrats She’s Lose-Lose

Don’t get me wrong. If I were Hillary Clinton, I’d run for President, too. I’d figure:

Everything real about the 2008 race is, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, unknowable at this point-but hey, my knowables are at least as good as anybody’s. I could raise a fortune, exactly $0 of which I’d have to spend on name recognition. Granted, my name is mud among many voters, but three years from now, the Republicans may have made such a spectacular disaster of everything that their nominee’s name will be fertilizer. I have personally walked the obstacle course of two successful Presidential races, a practical advantage that is not to be underestimated. Sure, there will be currently unimaginable gaffes and mortifications, screw-ups and scandals along the way-but nobody, nobody, has one-eightieth of the practice at turning those into white noise, sympathy magnets or live ammunition that I do. As for those who go on and on about what a “polarizing figure” I am, they should be put to bed with milk, cookies and a storybook in which the main character “brings people together,” for they have clearly not noticed who’s been winning lately, and how. By virtue of becoming a plausible contender for the White House, Mister Rogers would be a polarizing figure. Thus, the job of the candidate is to draw more people to his or her pole-or at least away from the other guy’s.

Come to think of it, my reputation in some parts as Pure Evil in a Pantsuit may do me nothing but good: If the American heartland is anything like upstate New York-or, please God, the national-level Republicans in 2008 are anything like the New York State ones in 2000, and limit their entire message to the premise that I am one scary bitch-I will get major points just for not spitting fire. And anyway, if I don’t run, what will I do? Stew in the tepid juices of junior minority membership in the Senate? (Which, safely assuming my re-election in ’06, I’ll be perfectly free to do if I run for the White House and lose.)

So I’d do it, and I’d be surprised if she didn’t. Given most of the alternative Democratic political stories to be chased down out there (“Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid Flatly Denies Total Irrelevance”), I’d be even more surprised if she didn’t get ridiculously early, outlandishly anticipatory press coverage as she went about doing it.

But hang on a second. It is one thing to view Hillary Clinton as a plausible candidate. It is quite another to hail her as Our Lady of Democratic Redemption. Lately, some of the analysis she has inspired has been so ecstatic and so fuzzy, it seems only a matter of time before those offering it start giggling and getting the munchies.

Not to kill everyone’s buzz or anything, but before we get any more stoned on speculation as to what might be true of her next historic run for office, it might be worth pointing out a few sobering-not disqualifying, but sobering-things that were true of her first historic run for office.

She didn’t have a primary. There were no ideologically similar candidates who had a motive to do her any damage before the Republicans got to her. This will not be true in 2008. Somebody might notice that there are major, substantive and unexplained gaps in her positions on issues from health care to welfare reform to abortion access to Israel-and unlike the one and only candidate she has ever run against, that somebody will probably not be vulnerable to instant nuking as a right-wing, choice-hating minion of Newt Gingrich. (That somebody will also probably be unable to make anything about her views on policy matter to the public as much as, say, her views on Botox, but ya never know.)

This point is closely related to, and therefore perhaps indistinguishable from, the second point: She had a husband named POTUS. No question, in 2000 Mrs. Clinton’s dual role as First Lady and Senate candidate obliged her to walk a tightrope that she can, in many respects, be glad to have behind her. As a tool of pre-emptive party unification, however, that Oval Office sure did come in handy. During the long march to her Senate candidacy, there were plenty of Democratic players in New York who disliked or even despised the whole idea. Not a one was dumb enough to speak-let alone act upon-such sentiments in public. This time, things will be different. The Clintons remain a major force in the party, but they are no longer the party itself. There are no White House invitations to be issued to wavering kingmakers, no great and guaranteed political rewards or punishments to be implied in exchange for helping or hurting her efforts. Clearly, no matter who else is in the field, Mrs. Clinton’s presence will be a strong one, and thus it will be tempting for folks to support her early and often. But it won’t be suicidal for them not to.

She ran against nobody. Always fortunate in her enemies, the then First Lady ultimately faced off against Rick Lazio, a little-known and little-tested Long Island Congressman who was brought in to pinch hit on the odd chance that he’d whack the ball out of the park. This was after her original opponent, Rudolph Giuliani, countered her months of upstate travels by pretty much refusing to venture north of the Bronx; then got cancer, scandalously left his second wife for his third one, and dropped out of the race. It was, however, before Mr. Lazio-whose initial potential lay largely in his clean-cut, well-spoken, what-a-nice-young-mannishness-went counterproductively postal: Before he shoved a campaign-finance agreement in the First Lady’s face during their first debate, thereby introducing himself to the electorate as a bully; before the state Republicans launched a telephone-calling effort linking Hillary’s behavior to the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole; before the Lazio campaign ran an ad bragging that Mrs. Lazio cleaned their house herself; and so on.

Her husband was an unmitigated asset. Here, of course, is the heart of the matter. No offense to Gloria Steinem, but let’s face it: Nationally as in New York, whatever her own strengths and weaknesses, Hillary will be running as a partner and proxy of Bill. And as far as true believers are concerned, that’s terrific: smooth syntax, international respect, deficits that sink rather than spiral …. What about the Clinton Presidency was not to like? Oh yes, that … but Hillary doesn’t have that. She’s Bill without the party in his pants. What could be better?

In 2000, she ran in a state that would have re-elected Bill to a third term in a heartbeat. No matter how much their supporters want to believe that this is true of the entire country, and no matter how many dazzled members of the press are willing to buy it, there’s a fair bit of evidence that this is simply not true. This is not a judgment on any aspect of Bill Clinton as a President or as a person. This is a simple look at the score. In 1994, when Congress went Republican and the President adopted a strategy of “triangulation,” whereby he made himself the voice of reason between the crazy partisans on both sides, many Democrats were appalled at what they saw as their President’s decision to sacrifice the party to save himself. In retrospect, that seems to be a fairly decent description of what had occurred.

Mr. Clinton himself was, of course, re-elected. Otherwise, since his ascension, the Democrats have lost two Presidential races; lost control of the House of Representatives; lost control of the United States Senate; lost, on balance, more state legislatures and governorships than they have gained.

Granted, given all the variables-national trends, local idiosyncrasies, the giant sea change that was Sept. 11-it would be ridiculous to lay all this rubble entirely at the feet of the former President. But it is much more ridiculous to sculpt it, somehow, into an argument that America is longing for more of him.

Yet this is precisely the argument that whole swaths of Democrats will make. It’s fascinating, and almost poignant-like talking to a veteran who can’t bring himself to acknowledge that the war wasn’t worth it. Similarly, it’s as if they’d be heretics if they not only recognized that Mr. Clinton is brilliant, but contemplated how he is brilliant. As if they can’t bring themselves to entertain what has become a fairly obvious possibility: that, in some respects, this is simply the latest manifestation of Camelust-the tendency (known in both parties, but more pronounced among the Democrats) to mistake political star power for political power, when the two should be related, not equated. This is why, no matter how many times Kennedys lose, Democrats are always charmed by the idea of one running, to the point of occasional rumblings about drafting Caroline.

In other respects, it is plain old Bushbile: embarrassment over the Presidency of George W. Bush, conviction that the things that Bill Clinton lied about as President were nowhere near as grave or as duty-related as the things that George W. Bush has lied about, and confidence that if only America would wake up and put its brain back in its head, this whole stupid, arrogant, violent era would end. Many Americans believe this-and they all voted for John Kerry.

If the Democrats are to retake the White House-and start retaking the country-it’s not enough for the nominee to be a star. It’s not enough for the nominee to galvanize those who already hate Mr. Bush. If the Democrats want to remake their party into something of nerve and heft and intellect, they need to call for a full and fair investigation that is not of the Whitewater kind. They have to delve, really delve, into what has gone wrong: why, apart from Ohio chicanery and inexplicable voter insanity, all these votes have been lost. That means questioning everything, including (heavens!) the gospel according to Terry McAuliffe. It means entertaining what has become a fairly obvious possibility: that Bill Clinton’s survival strategy-co-opting the Republican agenda while vilifying Republicans-may have been brilliant in the short run for him, but was not so brilliant in the long run for his party.

In those terms, the most disturbing potential of a successful Hillary Clinton candidacy isn’t that it might become mired in Whitewater or Monica or Vince Foster or any of the rest of it; they’ll have that stuff sorted. It’s that, at a time when the party needs to go on offense-intellectual offense, against its own torpor-she will dig in her heels and play what she plays best: defense.

In which case, whatever the fate of Hillary ’08, the Democrats-yet again-will lose.