David Frum February 23rd, 2008 at 12:00 am
Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is collapsing, a victim of this one unsolveable problem: Hillary’s opponents hate her — but her supporters do not much like her.
As the Democratic primaries have stretched, former Hillary supporting constituencies have one by one dropped away.
African-Americans — supposedly so Clinton loyal? They were the first to defect to the charismatic challenger with the odd name and the exotic personal history. Then went younger white men. Then older white men. Then upper-income white women.
In the Feb. 19 Wisconsin primary, Obama beat Clinton in virtually every demographic category, including whites with only high-school diplomas and whites earning less than $50,000 a year: till now core Clinton groups.
Since last fall, Hillary Clinton has plunged from a 20 point lead over Obama to trailing behind him.
Only two elements of the Democratic party electorate still remain faithful: poor white women and Latinos. And even if she holds those groups, that will not be enough. Thanks to the arcane rules of the Texas primary, it is very possible that Hillary could win an outright majority of the state’s vote — and still lose the delegate count to Obama. What ails the Clinton candidacy?
Over the past eight years, Hillary Clinton has compiled a relatively moderate record in the U.S. Senate. She famously voted to authorize the Iraq war, but in other ways too she has moved away from her image as a hard-left ultra-feminist toward the national centre.
Her party’s liberal base has noticed — and resented the shift. Her opponents have not. And so Clinton suffers the worst of both worlds: Conservatives oppose her because they think she is a liberal. Liberals oppose her because they suspect she is not. Add to that her husband’s scandals and the larger Evita Peron problem posed by a First Lady running to succeed her husband and the result is ?free fall.
Meanwhile, Obama has managed to soothe many conservatives into imagining him as a unifying figure, despite his own clear record as the most consistently liberal member of the U.S.
Senate. It’s a good trick, so long as it lasts — but it gives every sign of lasting just long enough.
Yet there is a reality here beyond the image. Hillary Clinton has given every indication of being a more responsible potential commander-in-chief than Obama. She has refused to pledge unconditional and immediate withdrawal from Iraq, as Obama has done. He has offered to meet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro without preconditions. Hillary has declined to offer America’s enemies such a PR coup. Her foreign policy advisors include level-headed people like Richard Holbrooke. His are led by the most dovish of the former Clinton hands, including Anthony Lake. Obama has even accepted advice from Robert Malley, the most prominent U.S. advocate of engagement with Hamas.
Obama talks about “building bridges.” And certainly his style seems less angry than Hillary Clinton’s. He does not seem to hate his enemies the way she does, does not engage in loose talk of vast right-wing conspiracies against him. That’s all to the good. Yet it is Clinton who has compiled the better record of bipartisan co-operation in the Senate.
Obama’s supporters react angrily against Hillary’s claim that she offers action, Obama only words. But she has a point: Not in a long time has a candidate sought the presidency on the basis of a record as slight as Barack Obama’s. His supporters compare him to Abraham Lincoln, who served only a single term in Congress before winning election as president. A better analogy might be William Jennings Bryan, who won the Democratic nomination in 1896 on the power of a great convention speech. Obama too gave a great speech in 2004. Beyond that, there is only guesswork, hope and fantasy.
Supporters of a strong American foreign policy will of course prefer John McCain to either Democrat. But if a Democrat it must be, Hillary Clinton seems the better choice for a national security voter. Largely for that very reason, Clinton’s party has chosen otherwise.
If Obama does win the nomination and the presidency, he will face some very difficult realities with very little preparation. At that point, many Democrats — and not a few Republicans — may find themselves recalling Hillary Clinton’s prophetic warnings that there is all the difference in the world between making speeches and effective government.