Hillary Rodham Clinton and Marco Rubio have both now thrown their hats into the ring to become the next president of the United States. Both, in different ways, reflect the changing nature of American presidential politics, specifically the effectiveness with which Barack Obama ran and won in 2008.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign is premised on her long resume and the fact that she would be the first woman president. Lord knows it is time we have a woman in the White House but the question remains if she is the woman the American people will want. She has been one of the most polarizing figures in American politics for more than twenty years. I do not blame her for the attacks that were thrown her way, but she has demonstrably failed to rise above them. The phrase “vast rightwing conspiracy,” uttered during the Lewinski scandal that was brought on by her husband’s actions, not by anyone in the rightwing, may have been accurate, but it clings to her as a testimony to her Manichaean worldview. With the Clintons, you are with them or you are against them.
The resume is impressive at first glance, but Clinton is well past her first glance. She is one of the few people on the planet who can be identified by her first name, like Oprah, or LeBron. Arguably, the thing that most differentiates her from President Obama is that she failed to get health care reform passed and he did it. Remembering how badly she handled the health care fight is an unhappy memory. As Senator from New York, her most memorable vote was to authorize the Iraq War, a vote that still rankles many in the Democratic Party. Her time as Secretary of State was remarkably undistinguished with nothing in the way of accomplishments except vague talk about rebuilding alliances. She is probably more hawkish than the President, which is fine by me, but I would be hard pressed to explain her worldview.
Clinton’s biggest problem is that people do not trust her. It was the Clintons, after all, who brought Dick Morris to Washington, and then cut him loose when he had a personal scandal. There were many reasons to cut Dick Morris loose but his personal behavior did not make my top ten list. I took out my copy of George Stephanopoulos’ memoir “All Too Human” to verify Hillary’s complicity in bringing Morris back. The other thing that stands out from Stephanopoulos’ account is how utterly cold and calculating Hillary was. She cared about the issues, to be sure, but there is a bloodlessness in the way she reacted to the Gennifer Flowers scandal that is frightening. The publication of a White House tell-all by the staff, which claims the Clintons had huge fights over Bill’s behavior, actually humanized Hillary for me. I would have thrown a lamp at him too.
Bill Clinton oddly endeared himself to the American people with his Bubba-ish behavior with Flowers and other women not his wife. If he was not such a rake, he would have been just another Rhodes scholar, policy wonk with a law degree from Yale. It is a measure of the sexism of our society that any similar moral failing on her part would not endear her to the American people but eliminate her from contention. But, I suspect Hillary is as morally upright in her personal life as Bill was reckless. Still, drama is where they live and both her campaign and, if it turns out, her presidency will have their share of it.
She must find a way to address the trust issue. In most recent elections, including that of her husband’s in 1992, a governor must introduce himself or herself to the American people and earn their trust. They start with a more or less clean slate. The former Secretary of State does not start with a clean slate. There is something Machiavellian about Clinton, the sense that she is a bit too much like another, previous Wellesley College alumna, Mayling Soong, class of 1917, also known for her aptitude for the acquisition of power. Is Clinton running for president because she thinks she knows how to address the nation’s problems or because it is the capstone to her career? Is the race about us or about her? She is an exceedingly intelligent woman, to be sure, and no one doubts that. It is her moral compass on public matters, the sense that she and her friends know best and anyone who questions them is to be fought ruthlessly, that worries people and I do not know how someone who has been in the public eye for so long can address that lingering sense of distrust.
All of that said, there is only one person who can beat Hillary Clinton and that is Hillary Clinton. The prospect of electing the first woman president will take on the feel of history, as Obama’s candidacy achieved in 2008. And, the fact that she lost the 2008 race means that no Democratic male can beat her, certainly no white male, without women thinking that something is rotten. And no Democrat can win if women stay home and don’t vote. I suspect that Clinton has learned the lessons of her 2008 defeat. She has brought in grown-ups to run the show, people of independent stature like John Podesta who can tell her when she is wrong, enforce discipline within the always in-fighting factions of any presidential campaign, and walk away from the campaign if his advice is not taken. She did not have that in 2008.
Marco Rubio is the Republican, Latino version of Barack Obama, without the charisma. In the article on his announcement, Politico reported, “Rubio’s soaring rhetoric and the venue he chose – the iconic Freedom Tower, known as the ‘Ellis Island of the South’ – underscore the intensely personal nature of his campaign, an effort that’s as much about biography as it is about ideas and inspiration.” Sound like anyone we elected in 2008? Add to that the ethnic first. Add to that the first-term senator. Add to that the telegenic presence. Add to that the humble, hardscrabble family roots. Add to that the idea that one personality can address the nation’s problems when, of course, only policy changes will achieve that. Add to that the astonishingly thin resume and lack of executive experience.
There are differences between Rubio and Obama, to be sure. Last summer I watched Rubio give a version of his stump speech. There was not much there. The verbiage sounded like it had been lifted from a patriotic version of Hallmark cards. The policy details were absent. I walked away with the sense that here was a man about whom it is critical to know who are his advisors before even entertaining the idea of voting for him. He is a handsome vehicle for Republicanism, even Tea Party Republicanism, certainly less acidic than Ted Cruz, but that is all he is. If telling a good story was enough to be president, Harper Lee would have been elected a long time ago. And, I do not believe the American people, in their wisdom, will give the keys to the car to such an untested driver of a car otherwise filled with crazy people.
The American people and the GOP primary electorate, however, are not the same set. Rubio’s seat in the Senate will allow him and Sen. Ted Cruz to grandstand for days when, for example, the debt-ceiling must be raised. Some Republicans may delude themselves into thinking that Rubio’s ability to speak Spanish and his Cuban roots will help the party win a greater share of the fastest growing part of the electorate, but my Dominican and Mexican and Salvadorean friends are not dumb and they resented the special treatment afford Cuban immigrants long before Rubio was old enough to vote. If he had stuck to his support for comprehensive immigration reform, it might be different, but he backed away from that deal almost the minute it was reached. No one likes a turncoat.
It is true that the American people like to look forward and that neither Clinton nor Jeb Bush shouts “forward.” But, sadly, I suspect this will be a conservative election cycle. People are not confident enough about the economy to take a risk. The images of terror in the world darken our imaginations. In the end, I suspect the race will come down to a race between Clinton and Bush, and I suspect she will clean his clock.