Is Clinton Running...Backwards?

The concerns about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s prospective candidacy have shifted from the whispering stage to the lunch conversation stage. A month ago, you did not dare voice your concerns at a table with half a dozen other people. Now, even people who really admire or like Mrs. Clinton are getting nervous.

First, there was the book rollout which she managed to mangle by saying the Clintons left the White House “flat broke.” In one sense, of course, that was true: With all their legal bills, they had a cash flow issue, for about two minutes, or however long it took for Bill Clinton to sign a contract for a memoir or a few speeches. Indeed, one of the things that was endearing about President Clinton while he was in office is that there never appeared to be anything venal about him. During the whole Lewinsky mess, when Ken Starr and the GOP were throwing mud at him, the mud just blended in. We knew Mr. Clinton did things he shouldn’t do with women other than his wife. Had the GOP discovered anything that hinted at graft or financial corruption, that would have caused the American people to look at Clinton differently. Since that time, however, the vast sums of money the two Clintons get paid for speeches, the demands their staff make of those hosting them, all made the self-pitying quality of Mrs. Clinton’s “flat broke” comment seem really strange.

Now, we have the controversy over Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email address and server while she served as Secretary of State. This is a bigger deal than the Clintonista spokespeople sent out to defend her have admitted. Liberals, of all people, appreciate the importance of Freedom of Information laws. And, the kerfuffle allows the GOP to remount its attack over Clinton’s handling of the Benghazi attacks, a controversy that had seemed to have burnt itself out but which now has received new kindling. We do not know if anything will come of the subpoenas and the investigations, although even that keeps one off message. But, the problem is deeper and will not be solved if the investigators find no evidence of criminal wrong-doing, namely, Mrs. Clinton has a deep and abiding concern with her own privacy. There is nothing wrong with that – unless you want to be a politician and especially if you want to become the most powerful person in the world. Your right to privacy diminishes in direct correlation to the amount of power you seek to acquire. If you seek the authority to launch a nuclear strike, the American people get to ask pretty much any question we want and to expect an answer.

There are other problems Mrs. Clinton faces. As I noted before, when we first started speculating about her candidacy, my housemate, who has a knack for turning a phrase that captures the essence of a problem, said, “Well, if she runs, there will be plenty of drama because that is where they live.” Bingo. Others worry, rightly, that Mrs. Clinton never possessed her husband’s extraordinary political gifts, especially for communication, and that the only time she showed herself to be a really good politician was at the end of the primaries in 2008, when her back was up against the wall. There are many people who only are at their best when their back is up against a wall, but I am not sure that is a quality one wants in a president. Mrs. Clinton’s tenure at the State Department was pretty uneventful and there is not much of a record, good or bad, from her time at Foggy Bottom. Finally, when you talk to voters, the things they say they want – a fresh start, less polarization – these are not things Mrs. Clinton can provide. She is one of the most polarizing figures in politics and has been since 1992. And, nothing shouts “fresh start” like the prospect of a Clinton vs. Bush campaign.

One of the advantages Mrs. Clinton possesses is that she has been around so long people feel she is competent, that she has staying power in a tough sport, that she is driven the way someone who wants to be president must be driven. But, this is America. Nothing sells like putting the label “new” on a product. It was not only hometown pride that led the Boston Globe editorial board this weekend  to call on Sen. Elizabeth Warren to enter the race.  Mrs. Warren is clearly the ideological spokesperson for the base of the party and for a lot of disaffected white, working class Democrats too. But, she is also a first term Senator and after watching Mr. Obama’s performance, many Americans may value experience more than usual. And, if Warren does not enter the race, all of Mrs. Clinton’s other prospective opponents are white men. I do not think the Democratic Party electorate, which has been addled by identity politics for so long, will shed its fixation this year, not when the prospect of electing the first woman president brings a whiff of history too.

The New York Times ran a story this weekend that Mrs. Clinton is reaching out to Catholics. She recently had a long meeting with Cardinal Timothy Dolan and she attended a St. Patrick’s Day lunch that had many prominent RCs in attendance. In her primary battle with Obama in 2008, Mrs. Clinton repeatedly trounced him among white, working class Catholic voters. As a woman, she could stand up to Emily’s List and NARAL over a relatively minor issue like the HHS mandate in a way President Obama did not think he could, and throw the Church a bone. I am not sure she would, but she could. But, with Pope Francis changing the intellectual and moral framework within which we discuss economics, it seems a shame for Catholics to embrace Clintonomics, which brought us NAFTA and a lower capital gains tax. If Mrs. Clinton were to announce an economics team that was different from what we have now, and from what her husband had in the 1990s, let’s hear it. White working class, Catholic voters want more than optics and memories.

You can tell people are entertaining doubts because of the increased coverage Gov. Martin O’Malley is getting. The Washington Post had a story today about his swing through Iowa where he was warmly received. Look for stories on Sen. Bernie Sanders soon too. The race is still Clinton’s to lose. She has, with her long career, earned the right to be a frontrunner. And all political observers I know agree that the only person who can beat Mrs. Clinton is Mrs. Clinton. But, in both her book rollout and in this email fracas, she has shown herself quite capable of doing precisely that.



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