Saturday, January 20, 2007

Hillary and history: The chase has begun

This blog post was revised and expanded on Sunday night and Monday morning.

We interrupt the weekend to announce that Hillary Clinton has joined the '08 presidential race. Or, more specifically, she announced today that she has officially decided to explore the possibility of joining the presidential race: "As a senator, I will spend two years doing everything in my power to limit the damage George W. Bush can do. But only a new president will be able to undo Bush's mistakes and restore our hope and optimism."

By the end of next January, just one year away, we will probably know whether she is destined to become the first female nominee in American history. Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina - the opening venues - will provide her with the requisite momentum...or slam on the brakes.

She's aiming her appeal at Americans "who work hard and play by the rules," as she said in her announcement. Shades of 1992...that line is verbatim from her husband's first campaign, and serves as a reminder that she is offering America a return to the House of Clinton (as opposed to the House of Bush). This might be comforting to many voters. On the other hand, a lot of Americans may well roll their eyes at the prospect, noting with some weariness that those two Houses have already reigned since January of 1989.

But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of her announcement was the format: a video message on her website. By delivering the big news from a cozy sofa, in an intimate setting, she was clearly seeking a personal connection with the viewer, and thereby hoping to undercut her image as "a cold, calculating woman" (the negative perception articulated on Sunday morning by Brit Hume on Fox News). Indeed, her campaign is promising more online video chats.

But the online announcement afforded her another advantage: By foregoing the usual faux campaign rally, or announcement via press conference, she avoided exposing herself to inconvenient questions from political reporters, who would have asked about Barack Obama, Iraq, and the husband whose skills as a performance artists exceed her own. Via online video, she can manage (at least for awhile) to control her message and sidestep what Bush has called "the filter." Indeed, the video chat may be the wave of the future.

Her weekend timing is also noteworthy. Her declaration this morning comes just days after Barack Obama's candidacy announcement (translation: "Grab some bench, rookie, because the slugger is taking the spotlight. Just watch those flashbulbs go off when I swing"). Despite the Obama feeding frenzy, she is by far the favorite candidate of rank-and-file Democratic voters; in the latest ABC-Washington Post poll, 41 percent cite Clinton as their prime choice. Only 17 percent say Obama, and 11 percent name John Edwards.

It can be argued that such a national poll is misleading; after all, the crucial first stops on the primary circuit are Iowa and New Hampshire, and Clinton is currently trailing her rivals in state polls. But she has yet to campaign energetically in either locale. That's about to change. She also has $14 million in the bank to help her get up to speed, and sufficient fund-raising prowess to sustain herself - without the need for public matching funds - during the primary season and beyond. (On the other hand, with regards to Iowa and New Hampshire, it will be fascinating to watch her attempt to conduct person-to-person retail politics in restaurants and living rooms, while being trailed by the largest media phalanx in modern history).

But it's equally important to note that she has officially gone public about a candidacy on the eve of President Bush's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill. She has purposely placed herself front and center in a news cycle normally dominated by the Decider. She's not set to deliver the official Democratic rebutal - that task will be performed by Virginia Senator Jim Webb - but whatever she does say in the aftermath of Bush's address will be scrutinized as never before.

Regarding the ongoing skepticism over whether Clinton is electable in '08, the latest Newsweek poll puts her in a statistical dead heat with each of the likely Republican rivals (although, as the figures show, Obama and Edwards also stack up fairly well). Perhaps the most striking stat - and one that the Clinton people had better pay attention to - is the sentiment among independent swing voters, when asked to choose between Clinton and John McCain. She gets only 43 percent of the swingers, and he gets 49 percent. That's not very impressive, considering the fact that McCain for many months has been panting after the religious right vote, and pushing for the troop escalation plan that is opposed by most Americans.

Indeed, Clinton has been working overtime to capture the middle on Iraq. Her basic take is that Bush's war has been poorly executed. The left and the center are basically in agreement on that, as far as it goes. She opposes the troop escalation, and she wants to "cap" the number of troops, but she won't vote to cut off money to the troops already on the ground. She's clearly to the right of Obama and Edwards on the war, when she is not simply being vague; in her weekend announcement, she said "Let's talk about how to bring the right end to the war in Iraq," without giving us even a clue about how she would define a "right end."

But her caution on Iraq will hardly innoculate her from GOP attack. In fact, war hawk/conservative analyst Bill Kristol is already calling her troop-cap proposal "dangerous foolish." On Fox News this weekend, he also assailed her as "totally irresponsible."

How an unapologetic cheerleader for the Iraq disaster can presume to attack somebody else as "irresponsible" is surely a mystery, and that prompts a thought: Why should we assume that a fresh round of GOP attacks on Clinton will work this time, given the fact that her attackers have lost so much of their credibility since the day when Bush wore his flight suit? In the end, it will all come down to what those aforementioned independent voters think.

In Clinton's defense, here's a new memo from her pollster, Mark Penn, who argues that - surprise - she is indeed on track to win a general election. Penn takes a veiled swipe at the untested Obama:

"Some of the commentators look at the ratings of people who have not yet been in the crossfire, and say they might have a better chance. Recent history shows the opposite. The last two Democratic presidential candidates started out with high favorable ratings and ended up on Election Day (and today) far more polarizing and disliked nationally....Hillary is the one potential nominee who has been fully tested....Hillary is the only one able to match or beat the Republicans after years of their partisan attacks on her."

Is Penn right? Talk amongst yourselves.


Meanwhile, in a print column this weekend about Obama, I tried to tackle the predictable question, "Is America ready for a black president?" by hopefully writing in a non-predictable manner.

Be forewarned: I mentioned in passing that some GOP activists have been trying to draft Condoleezza Rice, but that Rice had "averred." Turns out, I used the wrong word. As an eagle-eyed reader pointed out in an email, "averred" signifies a positive reaction; he suggested that I should have used "demurred" to signify that she was not interested in a draft. He's right.