Sunday, November 26, 2006

Hillary's authenticity challenge

In the spirit of contrarianism, I argued today in a print column that the current conventional wisdom about Hillary Clinton might be all wrong; that the Democrats who dread the prospect of her running for president might well be needlessly gnashing their teeth; that, in fact, she might actually be quite electable, when one considers both her political skills and the broader political landscape.

Obviously, naysayers can cite plenty of reasons why Clinton would join Al Gore and John Kerry in the Democratic pantheon of losers; indeed, in the hopes of provoking discussion, I expected that my Sunday email correspondents would provide substantive rebuttal. But since most of the keyboarders, from all corners of the nation, turned out to be people who would probably be most comfortable writing with crayons, or etching graffiti on the bathroom walls of the Bada Bing, I’m going to take the initiative and rebut myself.

Notwithstanding my four electability arguments, it would appear that Clinton’s biggest problem is in the realm of the personal. Undoubtedly, millions of people – many of them swing voters – still aren’t sure whether they can trust her. The fact that she has been a diligent, effective, bipartisan senator will not necessarily matter to these skeptics. More important is the lingering perception (which she would need to address on the stump every day) that she is cold, calculating, power hungry – and, therefore, inauthentic. And incapable of bonding with the averge citizen.

Scores of male presidential candidates, past and present, qualify for that description. But Clinton’s history is a complicating factor. There are women in this country, a not inconsiderable number, who still can’t fathom why Clinton stayed with her husband after the Lewinsky affair went public; and they have concluded (distastefully) that she did so only because she calculated that her future career would best be served by standing by her man.

As a candidate, she would need to find ways to neutralize these nagging character questions. More broadly, she also would need to address concerns, even among Democrats, that a Hillary Clinton presidency would doom America to eight more years of strongly polarized politics. (If we start the clock with her husband’s ascendance, that means we’re currently in our 14th straight year).

But, for Clinton, these are not insurmountable challenges. Our politics are fluid - especially now, in the wake of President Bush’s Iraq wreckage. And I have observed the limitations of conventional wisdom too many times. Two years before the 1992 election, everybody “knew” that the main contestants for the Democratic nod were Al Gore and Mario Cuomo. And four years earlier, everybody “knew” that the senior George Bush could not get elected because he was a sitting vice president, and no veep had succeeded directly to the presidency since 1836. But after Bush won, nobody was talking about Martin Van Buren anymore.