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.