Hillary Clinton
Credit: Gage Skidmore/ Flickr

For a first-time candidate and controversial first lady, Hillary Clinton’s bid for the open New York Senate seat in 2000 was going surprisingly well. From the beginning, she had staked out a seemingly impossible strategy, given who she was: ignore the press, go straight to the voters, and focus exclusively on issues, never on herself. “You make a mistake if you let any campaign become about you,” she told Michael Tomasky, one of the reporters who followed her that year. Given that even campaigns not involving Hillary Clinton sometimes manage to become about Hillary Clinton, it was difficult to imagine how she could pull off this feat. Still, she stuck doggedly to policy talk, boring the press corps but impressing New York voters. Two weeks before Election Day, she enjoyed a comfortable lead, polling eight points ahead of opponent Rick Lazio.

And that’s when Lazio decided to take matters into his hands and make the race about Clinton whether she liked it or not. His campaign put together a commercial intended to target her biggest vulnerability: white suburban women. All throughout the campaign, this demographic had been the most skeptical; in focus groups, even women who liked Clinton said she reminded them of an unpleasant woman in their lives–a mother-in-law or a stern Catholic nun or a judgmental neighbor. The ad sought to remind them that, deep down, they didn’t really like Hillary Clinton, that they thought she was too ambitious. On the screen, a woman making dinner in a kitchen talked on a phone, her tone angry: “We started out at the bottom and worked our tushes off to get somewhere. No, but Hillary, she wants to start at the top, you know, the senator from New York.”

The ad was the most personal of the race, and it worked. Within days, Clinton’s lead had shrunk to three points, within the margin of error. Although she recovered to win the Senate seat with 55 percent of the vote, Clinton’s advantage among women was only half that of Al Gore’s, who won New York’s female vote by a margin of 65 to 31.

Five years later, Sen. Clinton is a major player on the political scene. Her name is first on the lips of anyone who talks about the 2008 race for the White House. Potential rival John McCain says she would make a fine president. Conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Bill Kristol are talking up Clinton, warning their partisan colleagues that she would be a formidable opponent. That’s not surprising–after all, Republicans have long fantasized about the prospect of taking on Hillary Clinton again at a national level. But now, talk of her candidacy has gone from conservative wishful thinking to serious discussions within her own party, which is anxious to end its losing streak and is considering the advantages of closing ranks behind an early frontrunner. One glance at polls showing that 53 percent of Americans are willing to consider putting Clinton in the White House makes visions of sugar plums and oval offices dance in the heads of Democratic Party leaders. The high name recognition, impressive early poll numbers, and desperate party all carry the Senate whiff of inevitability that accompanied George W. Bush’s campaign for the 2000 election.

In the face of this momentum, someone has to say it, so here goes: Please don’t run, Senator.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a longtime Hillary Clinton fan. As in a back-when-she-was-still-wearing-headbands fan. I have found her warm and utterly charming in person; more than that, she understands the challenges facing Democrats in a way that few others in the party do, and her ability to absorb policy nuances rivals her husband’s. This country is long past due for a female president, and I would love to see Hillary Clinton in that trailblazing role (and not just because it would make Ann Coulter break out in giant hives). But–at the risk of getting myself permanently blackballed by her loyal and protective staff–while Clinton can win nearly any debate that is about issues, she cannot avoid becoming the issue in a national campaign. And when that happens, she will very likely lose.

No such thing as undecided

It’s not exactly news that Hillary Clinton is a polarizing figure. Ever since Newt Gingrich’s mother whispered to Connie Chung on national television that she thought Mrs. Clinton was, well, a bitch, Americans have understood that the ex-first lady provokes intense emotions on all sides. Still, it’s not hard to see why Hillary boosters are tempted to think that voters might be willing to take a new look at her and why politically astute people are turning cartwheels over the idea of her candidacy.

Over the last five years, Clinton has developed into perhaps the most interesting politician in America. She has a reputation for bipartisanship in the Senate, forming partnerships with some of her most conservative Republican colleagues, including Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). She has quietly, but firmly, assumed a leadership role in her own caucus. And she has shown vision and backbone in a party that is accused of having none.

Years before most Washington Democrats started worrying about the party’s reputation on “moral values,” Clinton was bringing Jim Wallis and other progressive religious leaders to talk with her colleagues about reclaiming the concepts of faith and values. She voted for the Iraq war when that wasn’t a popular position for a Democrat to take, and has been willing to speak uncomfortable truths in difficult venues. In January, she told a crowd of over 1,000 assembled pro-choice activists that the way they have been talking about abortion is wrong, that many Americans won’t even listen to them until they admit that it would be better if most women didn’t have to face the “sad, even tragic choice” of having one. More recently, she cosponsored the “Workplace Religious Freedom Act” after intense lobbying from women’s groups that oppose the legislation.

There’s no one tougher. No one understands better that Middle America cares about both economic issues and cultural concerns. At the same time, no one is better at firing up the liberal base. Add to all of that approval ratings in the high 50s, and it sounds like you have the makings of a sure-fire winner for the Democrats.

And if it were any other candidate, that might be true. But with Hillary Clinton, everything’s more complicated.

Let’s look at those poll numbers that have Democrats pasting “Hillary ’08” bumper stickers onto their Subaru Outbacks and Republicans pulling their Whitewater files out of the basement. Right now, Clinton is leaving her fellow Democratic contenders–including Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), John Edwards (D-N.C.), and Joseph Biden(D-Del.)–in the dust. In polls that ask voters to identify which potential Democratic nominee they would back in 2008, she regularly clocks in at around 40 percent while her closest competitor rarely breaks the 20 percent mark.

It’s important to remember, however, that polls taken this early in the process tend simply to reflect how well known a candidate is. (Kerry is surely as well-known as Clinton, but may be suffering in the polls from Democratic loser fatigue.) In 1997, for instance, George W. Bush led most polls of Republican prospects, in large part because many respondents thought they were being asked about his father. Hillary Clinton occupies the spot held by Al Gore at this point in the 2004 election cycle. She may well be the candidate most Democrats want to see as their nominee; or she could just be the one they know best. Right now, it’s too early to know for certain.

In addition, while her “favorables” are good–57 percent of Americans have a positive impression of her–her negatives are disturbingly high as well. This long before an election, most voters have yet to make up their mind about a candidate. Even as close to the primaries as December 2003, 66 percent of voters didn’t know what they thought of John Kerry. That’s not the case with Clinton. While at this point in George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign, Bush also had favorable ratings around the mid-50s, an additional 30 percent of voters said they either hadn’t made up their minds about him or they didn’t know who he was. Compare that to Hillary: Only 7 percent of respondents aren’t sure what they think of her, and–not surprisingly–no one says they haven’t heard of her.

Never in American political history has a candidate faced such a decided electorate at this early a point in a presidential race. That’s a disadvantage when you consider that one of the lessons of 2004 was that once voters develop a perception about a candidate, it’s as immovable as superglue. No one who thought George W. Bush was a likable, friendly guy could be convinced that he was corrupt or misleading. And once John Kerry became identified in voters’ minds as a “flip-flopper,” no amount of arguing could change that image. It’s a problem for any candidate. For Sen. Clinton, it could be fatal. Americans know exactly what they think of her. And nearly 40 percent say they would never consider voting for her.<p? <b=””>Shaking hands, changing minds

Of course, there is one proven way that Hillary Clinton has changed voters’ perceptions. In her first Senate race, the strategy was simple: Meet as many voters as possible, and ignore the scandal-focused press. It paid off–when Clinton launched her campaign, only 41 percent of New Yorkers were prepared to vote for her; she won in November 2000 with 55 percent of the vote after having visited each of the state’s 62 counties, many of them repeatedly.

Operation Smother the Voters worked in large part because the real Hillary Clinton is a far cry from the caricature of a manipulative, power-hungry, shrewish woman that has been propagated by the right. One of the unexpected benefits of being demonized and attacked by conservatives for more than a decade turns out to be that voters are surprised and relieved when she doesn’t fly into town on a broomstick. Tomasky relates the response of voters when they actually met the woman they’d heard so much about for eight years in Hillary’s Turn, his excellent book about Clinton’s 2000 campaign. “People had expected Hillary to instruct and talk, and, let’s face it, to come across as pushy and judgmental,” he wrote. “So when she paid genuine attention to the things people were saying, she really threw them.” Indeed, the first time I met the Clintons, the president distractedly shook some hands after a speech and then left fairly quickly while the first lady was the one who displayed the vaunted Clinton political skills–chatting easily about policy details, focusing intently on what my colleague and I had to say, and then throwing her arms around our shoulders for a photo that looks more like three college friends than two awed congressional staffers and a first lady.

The strategy also succeeded because many voters–weaned on a diet of conservative talking points during the 1990s–expected Clinton to be a liberal of the bluest sort, to the left of Ted Kennedy and unable to understand their concerns. What they found was that her positions on welfare, crime, and foreign policy, among other issues, were far more centrist than liberal. In addition, while most professional political observers dismissed her “Listening Tour” as a stunt, Clinton actually used it to query New Yorkers about their problems and obsessively study up on local issues.

All of this is impressive. But if the ability to work a rope line or a town hall meeting was the key ingredient to winning a national race, our political history would be quite different. In What It Takes, his chronicle of the 1988 presidential race, the journalist Richard Ben Cramer describes watching Dick Gephardt entrance voters with his earnest, determined approach and piercing blue eyes. “Sweet Jesus, he is terrific,” Cramer writes. “There aren’t ten voters in the country who’d work against him, once he’s had them face-to-face.” Similarly, last winter, many political reporters chalked up John Kerry’s surprising comeback in Iowa to the fact that he’d spent countless evenings in individual homes, talking to voters until he had convinced each person to support him. No candidate, however, meets every voter face-to-face en route to the White House.

Anyone running for office would prefer to meet as many voters as possible in person. The stakes are higher for Hillary Clinton: She has to meet personally with voters in order to have a chance of changing their minds about her. If she runs for the White House, the vast majority of Americans will learn what they know about her campaign through the media. And that’s where the second half of Sen. Clinton’s New York strategy falls apart.

“Nurse Ratched”

When a candidate’s name recognition is at 100 percent in a statewide campaign, she can afford to turn a few campaign saws about the media upside-down. For the 2000 Clinton campaign, no press was good press; “the smaller the circus, the better,” one of her staffers told Tomasky. They considered it a victory when the traveling press corps–bored by the lack of news made by Clinton’s “Listening Tour” and its endless focus on the minutiae of dairy compacts and traffic conditions on the Canadian border–winnowed from 250 reporters to 70 to about a dozen permanent scribes. Although the New York Post, and columnist Dick Morris in particular, nipped at Clinton’s heels for the length of the campaign, she was able to conduct her image transformation largely in a vacuum.

It’s safe to say that wouldn’t be the case in 2008. The only way to reach voters in a nationwide campaign is through the media, both through purchased airtime and what is referred to as “free” media–coverage of campaign events and interviews with print and television reporters. It’s a two-sided coin for candidates. They need journalists in order to get their messages across to the majority of Americans who won’t get a chance to hear them in person, but they have no control over what gets reported or how it’s framed in the press. Any Democrat running in the general election would face that challenge, although they might not yet know precisely how the press would cover their candidacy. Sen. Clinton, however, knows all too well what to expect. Her instincts were correct in 2000: When you’re Hillary Clinton, “free” media always comes with a cost.

Journalists are often no different from voters in general–when they form an impression of a politician, many reporters filter coverage through what they think they know about the candidate. Reporters “knew” Al Gore was a serial exaggerator, that Kerry was an out-of-touch, aristocratic elitist, and that Bush was an amiable goof. They may not let ideological leanings color their coverage, but personal biases can affect what they choose to report and the narratives they choose to tell.

Jill Lawrence, one of USA Today‘s campaign correspondents in 2004, has observed that very few political reporters wrote about the way Kerry used religious language–even though, she noted, it occurred every week on the campaign trail–because they assumed that Democratic candidates weren’t deeply religious. “The stereotype of the Democratic Party is so deep that it never broke through,” she said. That’s already happening with Clinton, whose religious references and comments on abortion generated headlines early in 2005. Most news outlets characterized her remarks as a distinct break from the past–implying that she was transforming herself for a White House run–even though she is a former Sunday School teacher who has spoken publicly about religion for decades and her comments on abortion were consistent with her husband’s mantra that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.”

Chemistry is also important for the press corps. Reporters are attracted to straight-talkers like John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and–in 2003, at least–Howard Dean. Inaccessibility is definitely a turn-off; in the early years of the Clinton administration, the First Lady famously fought with The Washington Post over the release of documents about Whitewater. Her chilly relationship with the press has warmed considerably during her first term in the Senate, but Hillary Clinton still has far more skeptics than fans in the press corps.

Sometimes they go far beyond reportorial cynicism. The Washington Post‘s reporter assigned to cover Clinton’s first Senate race, Michael Grunwald, provides one illustration of how the press corps already feels about her. Describing the first lady as “bor[ing] New York into submission, droning on endlessly about focus-grouped Democratic issues,” Grunwald accused her of “baldly deceptive and intentionally vacuous behavior” and “an intellectually and emotionally dishonest scheme to get a job without a résumé,” and charged that “her only consistent ideology was a faith in political popularity.” Ouch. More recently, on the Feb. 20, 2005, installment of “The Chris Matthews Show,” a panel discussed Hillary’s candidacy while calling her “Nurse Ratched” and a “castrating female persona”; things really got going when journalist Gloria Borger mimicked Clinton’s laugh and mannerisms while her colleagues sniggered.

And that’s coming from members of the mainstream media. The conservative press–never shy when it comes to Hillary Clinton–has spent the spring teeing up for another game of Hillaryball. The trial of David Rosen, the fundraiser for Clinton’s 2000 campaign, who was accused of hiding about $800,000 of costs for a campaign event held in Los Angeles, came first. In the three months leading up to the verdict (Rosen was acquitted), the FOX News Channel ran more than a dozen segments on Rosen, including a “Hannity & Colmes” segment titled “Are Hillary’s Presidential Chances Over?” Rosen’s eventual acquittal merited barely a hiccup on FOX, which simply replaced Rosen coverage with segments on the next Clinton scandal story–yet another bestselling book taking on the senator.

The Hillary effect

Edward Klein’s The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, and How Far She’ll Go to Become President is, even by the low standards of the genre, vile. In seeking to portray Hillary Clinton as a cold, manipulative woman who will do anything for power, Klein relies on wholly unsubstantiated accusations of corruption, lesbianism, and marital rape. Most conservatives who gleefully anticipated the book’s release are now distancing themselves from it. And liberals have derived some joy from scenes such as right-wing talk show host Sean Hannity sharply questioning Klein over his use of sources.

Klein apparently didn’t get the memo about anti-Hillary strategy. Frontal assaults and reckless accusations are sooo 1990s, definitely déclassé. More to the point, they make conservatives sound scary and are counterproductive. But while Democrats are surely hoping that these attacks will spur a backlash and sympathy for Clinton, the more likely outcome is a draw. Americans may have lost their appetite for books like Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House and Hillary’s Scheme: Inside the Next Clinton’s Ruthless Agenda to Take the White House, but many of them share the underlying concern about Clinton’s motives and character. Likewise, while a Republican nominee would benefit from anti-Hillary donations–in the last few months of the 2000 race, Lazio averaged $1 million each week in hard money contributions from Hillary-haters outside of New York–Sen. Clinton’s prodigious fundraising has the potential to neutralize that effort.

Conservatives won’t trot out supposed lesbian lovers in 2008; they’ll go after her more subtly. They know that 40 percent of the country can’t stand Sen. Clinton, another 40 percent adores her, and the remaining 20 percent (which, according to those recent polls, seem to feel generally positive about her) is made up of fairly soft support. The best way to turn that support into opposition is to voice those age-old questions about the Clintons: She’s inappropriately power-hungry and ambitious–remember that Tammy Wynette crack? He lacks moral character–do you really want him roaming the White House again? And don’t forget health care–who elected her to that post anyway?

Another golden oldie–the charge that the Clintons will say anything to get ahead–is already being revived elliptically by conservatives. The day after Sen. Clinton’s news-making abortion speech this past January, conservatives were all over the media, charging that she was undergoing a “makeover” of her political image. “I think what we’re seeing is, at least rhetorically, the attempt of the ultimate makeover,” Gary Bauer told The Washington Times. Investors Business Daily editorialized: “When husband Bill did it, it was called triangulation…. Now another Clinton running for president is telling different audiences what they want to hear.” In the six months since, the “makeover” charge has been repeated more than 100 times in the press. Give them another six, and “makeover” will be the new “flip-flop.”

The target audience for these whispers and insinuations–and, let’s not be naïve, occasional television commercials–is a familiar demographic: suburban women. Democrats lost ground in the 2004 elections among white, married, working women, and it’s generally accepted that to win back the White House, the party needs a nominee who can appeal to these women. There’s no reason to think that Republicans wouldn’t revive the same kind of personal attacks that Lazio brought out in the last week of the 2000 campaign. In that race, the Hillary effect that resulted in the loss of suburban women was masked by gains among upstate men. She’ll have a much harder time winning their counterparts in those essential swing states, which makes it even more important that she be able to count on the women’s vote. If the Republican strategy in 2008 results in the same outcome as 2000–if, in other words, Clinton’s advantage among women was half that of Gore’s–the margin of victory in states like Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Wisconsin will disappear. Game, set, match.

No, Democrats, it’s not fair. Hillary Clinton is smart, she’s paving a promising new path for her party, she’s a much better campaigner than anyone ever expected, and she’s already survived more personal assaults than anyone should have to endure. But wishing the country would grow up and get over the 1990s already, that she could wage a campaign of issues and be evaluated on her political merit, won’t make it so. What’s more, those daydreams–pleasant as they are to contemplate on a sunny afternoon–cast a shadow over the Democratic field that makes it difficult for a potentially viable candidate to emerge.

It’s too early for anyone to say with certainty that Hillary Clinton can’t win the White House. But it’s far too early–and dangerous–to conclude that she’s the best chance that Democrats have.

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Amy Sullivan is a Chicago-based journalist who has written about religion, politics, and culture as a senior editor for Time, National Journal, and Yahoo. She was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2004 to 2006.