Hillary Clinton
Credit: Lorie Shaull/Flickr

In 1978, while covering California politics, I found myself on election night at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, which was serving as a kind of election central. Waiting for the returns to come in, I was sitting in the lobby having a drink with my father–who, then as now, was the leading expert on Ronald Reagan. As if on cue, the former actor and ex-California governor came striding into the hotel. Even then Reagan looked the part: wide-shouldered, flanked by a security detail, sporting his trademark blue serge suit, every black hair in place.

The only thing missing, I thought, was the Marine Corps Band.

No one back east took Reagan nearly as seriously as he seemed to be taking himself. Despite a devoted following among what were then known as Goldwater Republicans, the Washington cognoscenti casually dismissed Reagan as too conservative, too old, a B-movie actor who once played second fiddle to a chimpanzee. “Who does he think he is?” I asked my dad. “The president of the United States?”

“No,” came the reply. “He thinks he’s the next president of the United States.” After a pause, he added, “And he might be.”

I remember that vignette every time a political sage says authoritatively that Hillary Rodham Clinton will “never” be president.

This is a particularly entrenched bit of conventional wisdom, which seems to have metastasized into a kind of secret handshake. If you “know” Clinton can’t be president, you’re a member of the Washington in-crowd. If you don’t, you’re an outsider, some boob from the sticks of, I don’t know, Sacramento or somewhere. Suburban Chicago, maybe. You know the rap: She’s too liberal, too polarizing, a feminist too threatening to male voters. Too much baggage. Too… Clinton.

And these are Democrats talking. Bizarrely, the party’s insiders are going out of their way to tear down the credentials and prospects of one of their rare superstars. Conservative columnist Robert Novak ran into this phenomenon recently while speaking to eight local Democratic politicians in Los Angeles. Novak told them matter-of-factly that Hillary was the odds-on favorite to be their party’s 2008 nominee–and that no one was in second place. Novak was surprised by their reaction: Not one was for Mrs. Clinton. Why? “They think she is a loser,” said one of the Democrats.

With some exceptions, the journalistic pack seems nearly as negative about Hillary Clinton’s chances. I’m a charter member of an informal lunch group of writers who runs the gamut from conservative to liberal, and each month when we meet, Hillary’s name arises. Around the table it goes: She can’t be elected in a general election; men aren’t willing to vote for a woman like Hillary; women don’t think much of her marriage–or her, for staying in it; which red state could she possibly carry? What swing voter would she convince? Each month, I marshaled my arguments in favor of Hillary’s candidacy, until finally I began sparing my friends the whole rap by just noting–for the minutes of the meeting, as it were–that I disagree with them.

Perhaps my lunch mates, those worried activist Democrats, and the majority of Washington pundits are correct. But I don’t think so.

They certainly weren’t right about Reagan.

Conservatives (and liberals) would consider it heresy to compare Ronald Reagan and Hillary Clinton. And Reagan is certainly a hard act to follow. He combined Main Street sensibilities and a soothing Middle America persona with an uplifting vision of America’s place in the world that earned him a stunningly decisive victory in 1980–and 60 percent of the vote when he ran for reelection four years later. Sen. Clinton is a more polarizing figure, in more polarized times. Yet Clinton, like Reagan, can lay claim to the passions of die-hard grassroots members of her party. With the exception of incumbents and vice presidents, no candidate since Reagan has had a hammerlock on his or her party’s nomination this long before the election. And like Reagan, the charisma gap between her and any would-be challengers in her own party is palpable.

Of course, the question is not whether she can win the primary. Most Democrats concede the primary is probably hers for the taking. “I don’t know how you beat her for the Democratic nomination,” former Sen. Bob Kerrey told New York magazine. “She’s a rock star.” But that, as the cognoscenti see it, is the problem. She can’t lose the primary, and she can’t win the general election. And so they look vainly for an alternative–Warner? Biden? Bayh? Oh my!–always circling back to the same despairing fear of another four years in the political wilderness. Democrats have raised this kind of defeatism to a high art. But it’s time for Democrats to snap out of it and take a fresh look at the hand they’ve been dealt. Hillary Rodham Clinton can win the general election no matter who the Republicans throw at her. The Democrats just might be holding aces.

Poll positioned

The available data do not suggest she is unelectable–they suggest just the opposite. A Gallup poll done a week before Memorial Day showed Sen. Clinton with a favorable rate of 55 percent. True, her unfavorable number is 39 percent, which is high enough for concern–but one that is nearly identical to Bush’s on the eve of his reelection. And the unfavorable rating registered by Republican contender Bill Frist was nearly as high as his favorable numbers, with 32 percent saying they’d never heard of him.

Then there was this eye-opening question:

If Hillary Rodham Clinton were to run for president in 2008, how likely would you be to vote for her–very likely, somewhat likely, not very likely, or not at all likely?

Very likely 29%
Somewhat likely 24
Not very likely 7
Not at all likely 40
No opinion 1

At the risk of laboring the point, 29 percent plus 24 percent adds up to a majority. I can hear my pals answering this as they read these numbers: “Yes, but that’s before the conservative attack machine gets a hold of her…”

Well, no, it isn’t. They’ve been going at her with verbal tire irons, machetes, and sawed-off shotguns for 12 years now. Sen. Clinton’s negatives are already figured into her ratings. What could she be accused of that she hasn’t already confronted since she entered the public eye 14 years ago? Clinton today is in a position similar to Bush’s at the beginning of 2004. Democrats hoped that more information about the president’s youth would knock him down. But voters had already taken the president’s past into account when they voted for him in 2000. More information just wasn’t going to make a dent. In fact, as the spring of 2005 turned to summer there were yet another book and a matched spate of tabloid broadsides. In the face of it all, Hillary appears, if anything, to be getting stronger. Indeed, the more the right throws at her, the easier it is for her to lump any criticism in with the darkest visions of the professional Clinton bashers.

Let’s also look deeper into that Gallup survey because the closer you look at it, the more formidable Sen. Clinton seems. Thirty percent of the poll’s respondents consider Hillary a “moderate,” while 9 percent described her a “conservative.” Now, I’m not sure which newspapers that 9 percent have been reading (the Daily Worker?), but the fact that nearly 40 percent of the electorate does not identify her as liberal mitigates the perception that she’s considered too far to the left to be a viable national candidate.

Such perceptions are hardly set in stone, however, and senators’ voting records can come back to haunt them in the heat of a campaign as John Kerry learned in 2004 and countless others have learned before him. It’s no accident that the last sitting U.S. senator elected president was John F. Kennedy. Thus, Clinton’s Senate voting record, and where it puts her on the ideological scale, is worth some additional scrutiny.

The most comprehensive annual analysis of voting records is undertaken by my magazine, National Journal, which for 2004 used 24 votes on economic issues, 19 votes on social issues, and 17 foreign policy-related roll calls to rate all 100 U.S. senators. Its resulting ranking of John Kerry as the Senate’s most liberal member (at least during 2003) was a gift from on high for the Bush campaign, and the Massachusetts senator spent the better part of his campaign trying to explain away this vote or that. But Sen. Clinton is harder to pigeon-hole. For 2004, Clinton’s composite liberal score was 71 percent–putting her roughly in the middle of the Democratic caucus. While adhering to her party’s liberal dogma on issues such as race, gun control, and judicial appointees, Hillary lists slightly toward the center on economic issues, and even more so on national security and foreign-policy issues. There’s no telling at this point how the war in Iraq will play in 2008, but one thing is certain: Sen. Clinton won’t struggle the way Kerry did to reconcile a vote authorizing the war with one not authorizing the $87 billion to pay for it. For better or worse, she voted “aye” both times.

Yet another piece of received Washington wisdom holds that the party could never nominate someone in 2008 who has supported the Iraq war. Perhaps. But history suggests that if Bush’s mission in Iraq flounders, a politician as nimble as Clinton will have plenty of time to get out in front of any anti-war movement. If it succeeds, Hillary would have demonstrated the kind of steadfastness demanded by the soccer moms turned security moms with whom Bush did so well in 2004.

On domestic issues, Sen. Clinton has also shown a willingness to step out of the safety zone. She is bolstering her bipartisan credentials by teaming up with Republicans from the other side of the aisle, such as Lindsey Graham and Frist himself, making her more difficult to portray as some kind of radical. And while her liberal voting record on social issues remains intact, she has taken rhetorical steps toward the middle. The most notable example occurred during a January speech in Albany, in which she advised abortion-rights activists to seek “common ground… with people on the other side.” While pledging to defend Roe v. Wade, Mrs. Clinton referred to abortion as a “sad, even tragic, act” and called on Democrats to embrace a moral language for discussing the issue. Some conservatives even seemed receptive. In some quarters, Hillary’s centrist posture was portrayed as new, but it actually isn’t: She butted heads with the Arkansas teachers’ union in the mid-1980s over a proposal she led to improve teacher quality.

The abortion speech was reminiscent of her husband’s 1992 campaign-trail criticism of Sister Souljah for advocating violence against white people. Her remarks simultaneously showed she was willing to talk common sense to a key Democratic interest group while putting herself in sync with the ambivalent sensibilities most Americans have toward abortion. And because of the high standing she enjoys among Democratic women, she was able to do it without any fear of liberal backlash. Let’s face it: When a feminist with Hillary’s credentials discusses abortion in the way she has, it causes people to sit up and take notice.

Which brings us to the ultimate question: Hillary’s gender. Will Americans vote for a woman?

They certainly say they will: 74 percent told Gallup that they’d be either “somewhat” or “very” likely to vote for a woman in 2008. This number is actually on the low side compared to polls from the pre-Hillary era, for the obvious reason that Clinton casts a shadow over 2008, and many of the respondents are Republicans who plan to vote against her. Again, I can hear some of my friends murmuring that these voters aren’t telling the truth. But that’s precisely the kind of snobbish thinking that never gets Democrats anywhere, that is usually wrong, and that infuriates swing voters. My advice to my Democratic friends is to ignore your inner elitist, and trust the American people to tell the truth, and, moreover, to do the right thing.

In fact, there is no reason to doubt them, as they’ve been proving their willingness to pull the lever for female candidates for a long time. In 1999, when Hillary first entered the national scene, 56 women sat in the House of Representatives, and nine in the Senate. Only three women were governors, but many women were in the pipeline in state government: Nearly 28 percent of statewide elective offices in the country were occupied by women. In one state, Arizona, women held the top five statewide offices. And that pipeline produced. Six years later, there are 14 women in the Senate, and 66 in the House (along with another three non-voting delegates). There are eight, not three, women governors. “The day will come when men will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation,” Susan B. Anthony once predicted. That day is fast approaching whether or not conservatives are ready for it, and whether or not liberals are willing to acknowledge it.

Map quest

Nonetheless, anyone who maintains that the American electorate is ready for a female president (and this particular female candidate) must at some point confront the Electoral College map. This, my skeptical friends claim, is where Hillary’s hopes runs aground. Putting it plainly, they challenge anyone to come up with a red state that Hillary can carry–someplace, anyplace, where Sen. Clinton could run stronger than the Kerry/Edwards ticket.

It is, of course, absurd to look at electoral politics at such an atomic level this far out. In due time, pollsters and the press will christen 2008’s must-have swing voters and must-win swing states. But calibrating a candidacy to the last election is a fool’s errand. The near-frozen electoral map of the last five years has been an historical anomaly, not the rule. So there’s no reason to believe that a 2004 electoral map would be terribly useful three years hence.

But if we must, let’s play along. What red state could Clinton snatch away from the GOP column? How about Florida? The Gold Coast considers itself part of New York anyway, and Clinton’s moderate overtures might draw swing voters from upstate. Cuban Americans are no longer the sole Latino voting bloc in Florida–and even Cubans are no longer monolithic. If not Florida, how about Iowa and New Mexico? They are centrist, bellwether states–and states Hillary’s husband carried both times he ran. Meanwhile, the Republican Party hardly has a lock on Ohio, which went for Clinton twice, and which was close in 2000 and 2004.

The fact is, there are a thousand movable parts in a presidential campaign, but the two most indispensable are (1) a candidate with charisma, money, and a broad following in his or her party; and (2) a ticket that espouses values and policies that Middle Americans agree with. A candidate, the polls now suggest, like Hillary Clinton.

Or John McCain.

The Bubba factor

After dissecting an upcoming race, any good horse player will look at the Racing Form again and figure out if he (or she) missed anything: Who could beat the obvious horse? For the 2008 presidential run, there is an answer that jumps off the page: If the Republican faithful are smart enough to nominate him, John Sydney McCain III would probably be their most formidable candidate–if he gets the GOP nomination, a big “if.”

It’s fanciful to suggest that anyone is unbeatable this far out, even McCain. While he makes the media swoon, the Arizona senator would have to thread a pretty tight needle to get to the White House. A Quinnipiac Poll taken in March showed a McCain-Clinton election virtually tied, 43-41. These are good numbers, but they’re hardly in the Colin Powell range. The Republican conservative base remains leery of him. That this antipathy is self-defeating (or even inexplicable) makes it no less real. In addition, the easiest circumstances to envision that would benefit McCain would be if there were widespread disillusion with Bush. But the issue most likely to bring that about–a dire result to the occupation in Iraq–probably doesn’t help McCain anyway: If anything, he’s been more hawkish on foreign policy than the president. Even if other factors–a rotten economy or a scandal–led to a McCain general election candidacy, a GOP meltdown might carry McCain to the nomination, but it wouldn’t help him against Hillary Clinton. First, if conservatives could muster only half-hearted passion for the man, (not unlike the less-than-enthusiastic support John Kerry received from many Democrats) well, we’ve seen that movie. No candidate is without vulnerabilities, and certainly Hillary has hers. (I’ll leave their enumeration to my counterpart, Amy Sullivan.) The difference between a winning and losing campaign, though, is whether you have the strategy to weather the inevitable rough waters.

On the USS George W. Bush, Karl Rove is considered the indispensable navigator. But when one looks on the Democratic side, who is a match for the man Bush called “The Architect” of his triumph? What recent Democrat has shown such an ability to see the political chessboard 20 moves ahead and plot a winning game plan? Only one, and to find him, Sen. Clinton need only look to the other side of the breakfast table.

President Clinton doesn’t come without strings attached. While it is an article of faith among the Clintonistas that Al Gore hurt his own campaign in 2000 by not using Bill Clinton more on the stump, there was plenty of polling to back up Gore’s gambit. While Clinton could stir up the party faithful, his presence wasn’t always a net plus. Hillary faces a similar dilemma when it comes to her husband–and a lot closer to home. But in addition to being able to draw upon Clinton’s strategic gifts, Sen. Clinton would almost certainly not make the more serious mistake Gore made: not being able to successfully make use of the Clinton administration’s record of 22 million new jobs; steady income growth for workers of every level; precipitous declines in the welfare rolls; and an expanded NATO alliance that ushered in the post Cold War geopolitical map.

Will Americans remember the optimism and idealism espoused in 1992 by The Man From Hope, and the way Clinton would parry policy questions with long, coherent, informative answers? Or will they remember their disgust at the revelations about the infamous blue dress, and how Clinton often shaded the truth?

No repentance, however sincere, could spare Bill Clinton from his eternity as fodder for the tabloids and late-night monologues. But he seems to be growing increasingly sure-footed and confident in his role as elder statesman. He has formed a friendship with the man he defeated for the office, and a productive working relationship with the current president. If he is to help his wife, all Clinton needs to do is remind us of his better angels, as he did during his tour of tsunami-devastated South Asia.

This brings us back to Hillary herself. Even if Bill Clinton rises to the occasion, voters are going to remember the yin and the yang of our 42nd president, and they are going to chew on the fact that the woman who wants to be our 44th is married to him. She will be asked about the marriage. How she answers will go a long way toward determining the viability of her candidacy. In his astute book on the Clinton presidency, John F. Harris recounts how aides broached the subject of her marriage as Hillary prepared to run for the Senate. How would she answer this basic question: Why had she stayed with him?

“Yes, I’ve been wondering that myself,” Hillary says playfully.

Then Bill interjects: “Because you’re a sticker! That’s what people need to know–you’re a sticker. You stick at the things you care about.”

Clintonites love this story, but there are a couple of things wrong with it. First, Bill Clinton is providing the answer, but it’s not his answer to give. Second, it’s a talking point. The Clintons are good at slogans, but this is a question women will have for Hillary Clinton, women looking to identify with her. A sound bite answer just might confirm voters’ fears that her marriage is a sham, and that she’s an opportunist. On the other hand, if the answer emerges that she loves Bill Clinton, despite his flaws, and that she’s in an imperfect marriage–well, most marriages are imperfect. Moreover, if she suggests that the deciding factor was her concern for their daughter, well, that’s the kind of pro-family cred that really matters. Cute answers won’t cut it. Authenticity will. And there’s every reason to believe both Clintons could summon it when talking about the daughter to whom they are so obviously devoted.

Finally, there is one perceived pitfall–and that’s Hillary’s penchant for the jugular. Party activists admire her for this, but successful general election candidates learn to temper the instincts that result in outbursts like the “vast, right-wing conspiracy.” In upstate New York, Sen. Clinton has charmed independent Yankee farmers and small-town Republican businessmen from Buffalo with an inclusive, upbeat style of campaigning and governing. This is the dress rehearsal for running nationwide, yet when she gets going on the red meat circuit Sen. Clinton retains a fondness for ad hominem attacks and paranoid world views.

“There has never been an administration, I don’t believe in our history, more intent upon consolidating and abusing power to further their own agenda,” Clinton said at a recent Democratic fundraiser. “Why can’t the Democrats do more to stop them? I can tell you this: It’s very hard to stop people who have no shame about what they’re doing…. It is very hard to stop people who have never been acquainted with the truth.” The crowd loved it, but this rant manages to ignore Nixon, while simultaneously sounding Nixonian. Hillary can definitely have a tin ear.

Hillary Clinton, whether she realizes it or not, is relieved of the obligation to pander in this way. She has paid her dues to the Democratic Party, and she doesn’t have to prove her bona fides to anyone. From now on, she only need emulate Reagan, a fellow Illinois native, who campaigned with positive rhetoric and a smile on his face, trusting that the work he’d done cultivating his base would pay off, and that he needed mainly to reassure independent-minded voters. When we in the press corps tried to bait Reagan into going negative by asking why he’d abandoned the party of his youth, he invariably smiled, cocked his head, and gave the same line. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” Reagan would say. “The Democratic Party left me.”

As a girl, Hillary Rodham was a Goldwater Republican. She could use the same line in reverse. It might remind swing voters why they are looking, once again, at casting their lot with a candidate named Clinton. She can do this because Democrats are poised to back her already, and because much of the rest of America is watching, open-minded, half-hoping that she gives them a reason to support her, too.

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Carl M. Cannon covers the White House for National Journal, an authoritative, non-partisan weekly Washington magazine on politics and government.