A year ago, it was easy and fashionable to forecast imminent peril for Hillary Clinton.
There were her intractably high unfavorable ratings, locked in place since 1992, which would surely scare off pragmatic Democrats hungry for the winning formula that eluded them—barely—in 2000 and 2004. Moreover, the primary calendar seemed custom-made for John Edwards, who had reinvented himself as a populist and as Hillary’s chief rival.
And then there was Hillary’s war vote in 2002, for which she stubbornly refused to apologize. Indeed, her discomfort in uttering much more than platitudes and poll-tested nonspeak on the war was evident. Certainly, the Democratic base, enraged by their own leaders’ complicity in George Bush’s war, wouldn’t stomach such a candidate.
Those assumptions have proved badly misplaced. The Iowa caucuses are less than four months away, and Hillary has lapped the field. Polls now have her leading in all of the early states, and the past few weeks have brought a surfeit of news stories touting her inevitability and marveling at how deftly she’s marginalized her rivals. The coverage itself threatens to create a self-fulfilling prophecy that would seal the nomination for her, with undecided Democrats shrugging and jumping on the Hillary bandwagon, figuring that she’s going to win anyway.
There are several reasons for the enviable position in which New York’s junior senator now finds herself.
One is that her public performance—in debates, on the stump and in television appearances—has obliterated the meager expectations that were set for her. In debates, she has shown confidence and an unhesitating command of most issues, along with a knack for artfully talking around sensitive questions until her time is up. She’s matched that with occasional and well-timed bursts of humor and a few memorable one-liners (“I’m your girl!”). Hillary was supposed to be “cold” and “shrill,” but that low bar has proved a blessing: That she has a personality has been a revelation to many, and has eased Democrats’ trepidation about making her their party’s face in the fall of 2008.
Her standing in head-to-head polls with the likely Republican nominees has accomplished the same thing. Consistently, she leads Rudy, Fred, Mitt and John in national polls and in likely battleground states. A poll this week found her 10 points ahead of the Republicans in New Mexico—a state that sided with George W. Bush in 2004. True, Barack Obama and Mr. Edwards fare about as well, but the fact that they don’t outperform her by a significant margin has undercut claims that Hillary and her 47 percent (or so) unfavorable rating are general election poison.
The early pessimism about Hillary’s prospects also overstated—radically—the willingness of Democrats to wage political war against one another over Iraq. In theory, Hillary’s support for the 2002 war resolution puts her at odds with the base of her own party. And yet the polls show her winning among antiwar Democrats with ease.
Actually, the ugliest intra-party bloodbaths for Democrats have come when the party’s general election prospects were bleakest. In 1972, 1980 and 1984, the party seemed to figure it had little chance in the fall, so it was best to use the primaries to make a philosophical statement for the future. But 2008 is not one of those years. After eight years out of power, the Democrats hold an edge in every political indicator. There is a general consensus among Democrats that, despite her initial vote, Hillary’s heart is in the right place on Iraq. And in 2008, that should be enough.
All of this, though, ignores what may be the biggest (and most ironic) reason for Hillary’s standing: Mr. Obama. When he unexpectedly emerged late last year, Mr. Obama’s star power immediately squeezed Mark Warner and Evan Bayh, both of whom had been charging toward full-fledged candidacies, out of the Democratic race. Either—but particularly Mr. Warner—could have emerged as a unifying and fresh-faced alternative to Hillary.
Mr. Obama also relegated Mr. Edwards, who had steadily built momentum throughout 2006, to second-class status. The Edwards campaign has never quite recovered. Perhaps just as important, Mr. Obama’s presence has kept Al Gore on the sidelines, since the former vice president would need a clear shot at Hillary Clinton to have a realistic chance.
Because he’s so overshadowed the other non-Hillary candidates, Mr. Obama is now the only Democrat with any chance of dethroning Hillary. But he’s failed to match the hype that greeted his candidacy with the urgent appeal that might override Hillary’s inevitability. That type of politicking doesn’t seem to be in his system.
It seems that Hillary Clinton, much like the current president before the 2000 election, has been underestimated.