From Ex-FLOTUS to POTUS: It Can Be Done. Will It?

110705 article book otoole From Ex FLOTUS to POTUS: It Can Be Done. Will It?What with Iraq, Katrina, Miers and Libby, it isn’t all that hard this week to win the argument that a Hillary Clinton Presidency would be a boon to the Republic. Susan Estrich filed her brief, The Case for Hillary Clinton, before most of those bombs went off, and reading it in their radioactive glow is downright spooky.

Matters that would have seemed banal a few weeks ago now feel urgent and deeply right. To wit: In the middle of making her case, Ms. Estrich asserts that the next President Clinton would “bring the best people to government.” Not a consideration that ever catapulted anybody off the couch and into the polling booth, but as Ms. Estrich points out, “George W. Bush did not promise to bring the best people to government. Why? Because, in his worldview, the best people don’t really belong in government. It’s just not the most important place, not the spot where the most vital work gets done. That would be the private sector.”

And that would explain all the turkey hash on the White House floor of late.

Ms. Estrich, a professor at the University of Southern California Law School, is also a Democratic political analyst for Fox News, where she provides just enough liberal sass to make the crowd on the couch believe that fairness and balance rule the newsroom. I’m not saying she doesn’t try; I’m saying she’s whispering into a gale. Her dossier shows an attraction to heavy weather: managing the Presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis and defending Claus von Bülow, Michael Milken and Leona Helmsley.

I count myself a good-natured reader, so I’m sorry to say that I found The Case for Hillary Clinton less book than book-like product. It has the requisite word-filled pages, hard covers, jacket and such—but my Lord, what a jumble. Rejoinders to old and new attacks on Hillary, chunks of press releases and speeches, lists that resemble and maybe are talking points (“She believes in keeping class sizes small”), the occasional chart, personal digressions. As a piece of advocacy, though, The Case for Hillary Clinton is surprisingly effective.

First, the candidate’s credentials: Hillary has been preparing for the job for a long time, and after four years in the Senate and eight years as an activist FLOTUS, she knows as much about being POTUS as any non-President can. State trips abroad to 78 countries have given her an impressively wide acquaintance with the world and the people who run it. She lives and breathes public policy. And she’s now well versed in defense, thanks to her seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Just as important, the public agrees that her credentials are in order. In a Fox News poll conducted soon after the 2004 election, 59 percent of voters said they considered her competent to be President. Only 33 percent of Republicans said so, but 58 percent of independents gave her the nod, as did 53 percent of men, a group commonly thought to be Hillaryphobic. The numbers mean that it’s no longer accurate (if it ever was) to say that Hillary Clinton shouldn’t run for President because she is “polarizing.”

As a nominee, Hillary Clinton is already a powerhouse. Her Senate record has established her as a moderate. Her approval rating, now 70 percent in New York, is up from 40 percent when she took office. Ms. Estrich maintains that Hillary is, “pound for pound, the smartest, most thoughtful, most policy-oriented candidate in the race—as well as the best fundraiser, the most charismatic, and the most committed to public service.” While the charisma claim is open to debate, she surely has more of it than Calamity George or his pa, and more than the last two telephone poles nominated by the Democrats. Her big handicap in animal magnetism is that she’s not in the same league as her husband, the person to whom she’s invariably compared. (Hint: Show us a failing, Hillary. We can’t identify with perfection.) But even if you subtract points for charisma, it’s hard to think of another plausible 2008 candidate in either party whose across-the-board scores approach Hillary’s.

As for the candidate’s vulnerabilities, Ms. Estrich notes, “There’s no such thing as a candidate without problems: there are only candidates with problems we don’t know about yet.” Hillary has already been under the microscope.

As formidable as a Clinton candidacy looks in November 2005, she’ll encounter big boulders on the path from the Senate to the White House. Sexism is one, maybe two: Before she faces the sexism of the electorate, she will have to conquer it in the Democratic Party. In spite of the polls, the idea persists in some party circles that she shouldn’t run because she’s unelectable. Not fair, Ms. Estrich says. “If she were a he—Harry Rodham, let’s say—the Democratic Party would be thrilled.”

Ms. Estrich seems particularly put out with Joe Klein of Time for a column arguing that Hillary should stay in the Senate. Among other things, Mr. Klein wrote that a hostile media would turn her Presidential campaign into “a revisitation of the carnival ugliness that infested public life in the 1990’s.”

“You don’t want to vote for Hillary, you don’t have to,” Ms. Estrich replies. “But since when do columnists get off telling the candidate who is ahead in every poll … that she’s wrong to run?”

Media hostility may turn out to be the biggest of Hillary’s boulders. She will be up against an incredibly efficient “right-wing attack machine,” Ms. Estrich warns. Exhibit A: During the 2004 campaign, when she asked her Fox colleague Sean Hannity what the Republicans had given him on the Swift Boat controversy, he showed her what was circulating that day—“hundreds of pages of background information to use in attacking Kerry: old quotes, attack points on each issue, with backup and backup for the backup.” Ms. Estrich was stunned. The Kerry campaign had armed her with three pages.

Although the next Presidential election is three years off, the attack machine is already in gear. Ed Klein’s The Truth About Hillary was spewed forth in June. It self-destructed, but a few weeks ago it was replaced by Dick Morris and Eileen McGann’s Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race. The cover looks like the front page of the New York Post, with giant type and headshots of a screaming Hillary and a Condi with bared teeth and those angry eyes. Catfight, don’t you know. They do have fun over there at Judith Regan Book-Like Products, which, of course, is a corporate cousin of the news-like Fox News Channel and the newspaper-like Post.

But the machine can’t do everything, and for now at least, its rumblings aren’t as interesting as the big questions. Should Hillary Clinton run? “Can you imagine any man in her position not running?” Ms. Estrich asks. Is she running? Yes. Could she win? Yes. Will she? Don’t touch that dial.

Patricia O’Toole’s most recent book is When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House (Simon and Schuster).