Since we’re talking about HRC, it’s interesting that TAP’s Paul Waldman (who greets the news that Mark Penn isn’t going to be the Public Face of any future Hillary Clinton campaign with great joy) wonders if one of the Democratic criticisms we heard about HRC in 2008 would return if she ran in 2016:
Back during the 2008 primaries, a lot of Obama supporters argued that despite Clinton’s contributions and qualifications, if she became president it would just drag America back into a period of nasty partisanship, not through any fault of her own but because Republicans hate her so. Wouldn’t it be better, they said, to have a candidate who could become a unifying figure and diffuse some of that Republican anger?
I wasn’t supporting Clinton at the time, but it wasn’t hard to tell that argument was fundamentally misconceived. But I wouldn’t be surprised if people started making it again if she becomes a candidate. We’ve just been through eight years of venomous Republican attacks on Barack Obama, they’ll say. Do we really want to stay stuck in that mud with a candidate that they may despise even more?
The lesson that should be drawn from recent history is that it really doesn’t matter who the Democratic nominee is. Republicans will hate him or her, and that hate will grow from an ember to a consuming fire. It will make twist them in knots, it will make them say crazy things, it may even consume their hopes of gaining back the White House. That hate will have a different flavor depending on who the candidate is—if it’s Clinton, we’ll see the return of all the sexual panic and misogyny she inspires—but what won’t change is its quantity. Even someone Republicans barely know now, like Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, will produce the same venomous reaction.
Now like Paul, I never really bought the argument in 2008 that conservatives would hate on Hillary more than Barack Obama, except in the limited sense that I figured many of them would be a bit reluctant to go after the first African-American presidential nominee (and I was sure wrong about that!). I did think that HRC had become a pop culture figure whose image, for better or worse, was too powerful to be changed by conventional political tactics, which placed both a ceiling above and a floor below her levels of support.
But the same polarizing forces that made HRC look like a candidate whose “swing vote” was about 5% in 2008 later hit Obama with extraordinary force, and I suppose it’s possible to imagine that its strength is unique to historic political figures representing the aspirations of women and African-Americans. So would the same thing happen to a Martin O’Malley or an Andrew Cuomo? It’s a good question, and one I would probably answer the same way as Paul does: sometimes gender and race become potent symbols in partisan and ideological struggles, but in the end, party and ideology trump all, at least for the immediate future.