Hillary and the Myth of Clinton Inevitability

There’s a sense of inevitability around the Clinton brand, and Hillary Clinton has been cashing in on it.

She advertises herself as “vetted,” promises there will be “no surprises” with her as the party’s nominee, and brags that she and her husband have been fighting—and defeating—the Republicans for 15 years running. And it’s working: Even though surveys show Barack Obama (and even John Edwards) faring markedly better against the likely Republican nominees, Democratic voters continue to tell pollsters that they believe Hillary is the most electable candidate.

The Clintons’ reputation as electoral gold is deserved, to an extent. Bill Clinton broke a 16-year dry spell for his party at the presidential level in 1992 and then became the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win a second term—feats that stand out all the more after the failures of Al Gore and John Kerry. He also managed to commit perjury and yet still rally the country to his side against a G.O.P.-led impeachment drive. And Hillary Clinton is now undefeated in two Senate races, racking up impressive margins even in traditionally Republicans swaths of an otherwise blue state.

But those accomplishments, as a measure of their sheer ability to win, need some context.

The Clintons have their political strengths—Bill’s unusual ability to communicate empathy, Hillary’s steely nerve and persistence, and their joint knack for playing the victim—but their political success has been enabled to a remarkable degree by limp opposition, fortuitous timing, and a willingness to throw their own party under the bus when necessary.

Bill Clinton’s path to the presidency in 1992 is instructive. It actually began in the mid-1980’s, when he set his sights on the open Democratic nomination in 1988. But as he prepared to enter the race, the campaign of the front-running Democrat, Gary Hart, suddenly blew up amid charges of marital infidelity. For the first time, a presidential candidate was asked by a reporter whether he’d committed adultery.

Back in Little Rock, his closest friends talked a reluctant Bill Clinton out of running. The country was not ready for someone with his baggage. But without Hart’s implosion, Clinton likely would have gone ahead and run in ‘88—and the inevitable “bimbo eruptions” could have sunk his national prospects for good.

By 1992, though, the public’s mood had begun to change. With Hillary at his side, Bill Clinton acknowledged “causing pain” in his marriage in a “60 Minutes” interview when the Gennifer Flowers story broke, and voters were open to giving him a pass.

But that was hardly the biggest break he caught in ‘92. First, there was the paralyzing impact of the celebrated Gulf War in early 1991, after which President George H.W. Bush’s popularity reached 90 percent. Those high marks froze the presidential race for the spring and summer months and kept every single big-name Democrat—including Bill Bradley, Mario Cuomo, Al Gore, Richard Gephardt, Lloyd Bentsen, and Jay Rockefeller—out of the race. When Bill Clinton finally jumped into the race, his main foes were Paul Tsongas, Bob Kerrey, and Jerry Brown. Of the three, Tsongas waged the strongest campaign and—briefly—threatened Clinton for the nomination. But the Clintons hit him with a barrage of negative campaigning and Tsongas lacked both the money and celebrity to insulate him from the attacks.

That weak opposition was just enough for Bill Clinton to overcome the character questions that dogged him in the primaries. But if even one of the Democratic heavyweights who sat the race out had opted to run, Bill likely wouldn’t have survived. And had that Democrat then won the White House, Bill would have been shut out of presidential politics until at least the year 2000, and possibly for good.

The Clintons faced similarly sub-par opposition in the 1992 general election. The Gulf War glow proved to be a mirage for George H.W. Bush as a devastating recession—and his oblivious public response to it—brought the president’s approval ratings well under 40 percent. Even Tsongas, before he dropped out of the Democratic race, had pulled ahead of Bush in head-to-head match-ups, and the president himself was nearly defeated in the New Hampshire Republican Primary. After 12 years of Reagan-Bush, the country was ready to turn the G.O.P. out. But Bill Clinton’s 43 to 38 percent victory (Ross Perot snagged 19 percent) could likely have been attained by numerous Democrats in 1992.

The pattern of feeble opposition continued during the Clintons’ White House years.

Consider the good fortune Bill Clinton had in nearly blowing up his presidency in 1993 and 1994, when the only Democrats facing the voters were in Congress, and not in 1995 and 1996, when it was his own name that would be on the ballot.

His bumbling governance led to historic Democratic defeats in the ‘94 mid-term elections, ushering in a Republican Senate for the first time since 1986 and a Republican House for the first time since 1954. Had Bill Clinton been facing the voters that year, he surely would have been run out of office, and decisively. But ‘94 turned into a blessing for Bill Clinton (if not his party), because the voters got their anger at him out of their system and then fell in love with divided government– a G.O.P. Congress to restrain the Democratic president, and vice versa.

In ‘96, against the haplessly dour Bob Dole, Bill Clinton won a passionless re-election campaign with 49 percent of the vote. (Dole took 41 percent, and Perot 8 percent). At the same time, voters kept the Republicans in control of Congress.

His second term was devoted mostly to political survival. The Lewinsky scandal erupted in January 1998, and for the next year Bill Clinton was forced to subordinate any kind of ambitious domestic agenda to a public relations campaign against Ken Starr and the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” When it was over, he’d won, but he was also a lame duck. And when he and Hillary left the White House in January 2001, the Democratic Party was weaker than it had been in decades, subject, many believed, to permanent minority status. The first Democratic president to win re-election since the Great Depression had done it at his own party’s expense.

Hillary Clinton’s own journey in politics has been propelled by similar forces. She’d never before run for office, but in 2000 she was handed the Democratic Party’s nomination for U.S. Senate in New York, a plum gift for which many politicians spend their entire careers angling—generally in vain. She, too, drew inferior opposition, in her case when Rick Lazio replaced Rudy Giuliani as the Republican standard-bearer. New York’s political demographics took care of the rest: With Al Gore carrying the state over George W. Bush by 25 points, Hillary defeated Lazio by 10.

Re-election in 2006 was never really in doubt, either. Most senators, especially in states where their party enjoys a built-in advantage, can count on winning at least two or three terms in they so desire. Hillary entered the Senate in 2001 determined to earn a reputation for cooperation and not polarization. She doggedly tended to her state’s needs and left her party’s highest profile battles against the Bush administration to other voices.

Against John Spencer in 2006, she broke 60 percent and carried many Republican areas—evidence, her allies claim, of her potential appeal to red state voters. In truth, her showing didn’t prove much. Even Ted Kennedy, perhaps the most polarizing Democrat in America, carried Republican areas of Massachusetts in his 2006 re-election campaign.

Which brings us to the current campaign. Hillary now appears well-positioned for the Democratic nomination, although that’s hardly a shocking feat: She entered this race as the most prohibitive favorite since Walter Mondale, and usually win primaries.

If she does claim the nomination, it’s entirely possible—if not likely—that she’ll win in the fall, simply because the odds strongly favor any Democrat after eight years of George W. Bush. It’s also possible that she’ll lose, and that she’ll turn out to have been a weaker general election candidate than her remaining opponents.

Hillary Clinton, and her husband, have enjoyed a remarkable string of victories since they first got to the White House. But she is not inevitable.