Watching the launch of Hillary Clinton’s second presidential candidacy, one old salt of a political observer found himself musing about past election cycles, beginning with the surprising turn of campaign events some forty-three years ago.
Back in early 1971, the prominent Newsweek columnist Stewart Alsop produced a political analysis of the coming election entitled, “The Pols and the Polls.” In it he posited that Maine senator Edmund Muskie had a lock on the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination. Nearly all the Washington pols of that time and certainly all the polls being conducted then pointed in that direction, he said.
He was wrong. The pols were merely spouting the early conventional wisdom, which is what they always do at that stage of the process. And the polls also were premature because the voters hadn’t really started thinking seriously about the election. Further, nobody could predict what kinds of intervening events might deflect the course of politics—such as the appearance that Muskie shed tears of rage in a snowstorm in response to an outrageous letter that questioned his respect for New Hampshire voters of French Canadian heritage and suggested he didn’t much like his own wife. (It later turned out the letter was a ploy, manufactured by dirty-tricksters working for Republican incumbent Richard Nixon, designed to fire up Muskie’s famous temper. It worked.)
The lesson: Beware of political predictions based on the pols and the polls. Sometimes they’re right, but sometimes they’re abjectly wrong. Another case in point was the 1992 election. Then the conventional wisdom was that Republican president George W. Bush, whose approval ratings were in the stratosphere following his triumph against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War, was unbeatable in his bid for reelection. But once again the polls were premature, while the pols were hopelessly obtuse in not seeing the political danger in a president reneging on a solemn campaign promise not to raise taxes, particularly when he subsequently finds himself presiding over an economic downturn just as his reelection campaign is getting into gear.
No one predicted—as indeed no one could have predicted—the series of events that rocked that campaign year. First, Bush got pummeled in the GOP primaries by a most unlikely political opponent—conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan, who became one of the greatest campaign spoilers of American political history. He grabbed nearly 40 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, then went on to bludgeon Bush in subsequent primaries—36 percent in Georgia, 30 percent in Maryland, 32 percent in Florida, 28 percent in Massachusetts. Buchanan’s onslaught couldn’t stop the incumbent president, of course, but it certainly left him bloodied as he went into the general election.
Meanwhile, the Democratic nomination went to a relatively obscure politician—Arkansas governor Bill Clinton—who was considered a second-tier candidate a mere twelve months before the campaign year began. And then came billionaire Ross Perot, the funny-looking industrialist with a squeaky voice and no political background, who emerged as a third-party candidate to widespread attention, then departed the race in a huff while accusing the president of sabotaging his daughter’s wedding, then got back in the race—and ended up with 19 percent of the general-election vote.
Looking back on 1992, Clinton’s eventual victory seems natural and inevitable. And those weird and unpredictable developments of that year now seem to reflect the essential underlying weakness of the Bush reelection bid. Yet that weakness was totally missed by pols and polls in the early months of political maneuvering.
Which bring us back to Hillary Clinton, herself considered to have had a lock on her party’s nomination eight years ago. But once again, the pols and polls were wrong. Now the pols and polls are saying that this time, though, she really does have an easy shot at it—indeed, doesn’t even have a serious opponent. And many suggest she is an odds-on favorite to carry the Clinton banner back into the White House a year from November. Perhaps they’re right. But, if we’re looking for signs that this could be one of those unpredictable years, we don’t have to look very far.
Let’s begin with Clinton herself. No one doubts her intellect, political sophistication, or smooth facility in the campaign arts, not to mention her fund-raising prowess. And yet she brings some clear liabilities into the race. First, she’s scandal-prone. Indeed, there’s just a touch of the unsavory about her, as there always was with her husband. The record is replete with questions and ambiguities—the quick cash bonanza from cattle-futures speculation; the White House “Travelgate” mess; the lost Rose Law Firm records related to the Whitewater investigation; Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadillos and willingness to lie under oath about them while president; and the couple’s tendency to attack as “bimbos” any women who might step forward with revelations of Bill’s misbehavior (or, worse, get pulled into the maelstrom of publicity and controversy against their will). And now there’s the revelation of Mrs. Clinton’s refusal, during her tenure as secretary of state, to be bound by regulations related to email use, designed to ensure public ownership of such important historical records. In Mrs. Clinton’s mind, it seems, such regulations don’t apply to her because she deserves special treatment.
Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal was correct in noting that it wasn’t too far in the past when such a record would be considered disqualifying for a presidential aspirant. She wrote: “A generation or two ago, a person so encrusted in a reputation for scandal would not be considered a possible presidential contender. She would have been ineligible. Now she is inevitable.”
Clearly, these things don’t matter much anymore to the political elites of Washington. But they may still matter just a bit out in the country, where ordinary people wonder about how their government has become so distant, so impervious to voter concerns, and so much a captive of what increasingly seems like a system of oligarchic power, unchecked by the popular will.
Beyond that, there’s a certain bloodless quality in Mrs. Clinton’s political persona these days. There doesn’t seem to be much natural political passion, little in the way of a visceral impetus to her candidacy. She seems to be saying, “Vote for me because I will tinker with the problems facing our nation far better than anyone else possibly could.” The Times reports that she sought guidance from 200 policy experts in crafting her economic agenda “and still has not settled on the details.” With America stuck in a slow-growth zone for nearly 15 years and struggling to improve the economic lot of its citizens, voters are starved for a William Jennings Bryan, who didn’t have to consult 200 experts to determine what he wanted to say to the American people. Mrs. Clinton offers instead a dusted-off version of Michael Dukakis—devoid of vision, fixated on her gifts of “competence.”
Perhaps her press conference performance in March, when she sought to answer queries about her email procedures and ended up wandering through numerous topics with a distracted listlessness, was merely the result of a bad day. Or maybe she was just going through the motions, unable to muster any internal energy for the event. If the latter, it’s worth noting that nobody, no matter how talented, ever got to the White House by going through the motions.
Even the nature of her candidacy announcement on Sunday, a two-minute video delivered through the mechanical and impersonal funnel of social media, seemed designed to keep in check any political fire on her part and blunt any fiery response on the part of her constituency. When the newspapers sent reporters out to preview her candidacy kick-off through interviews with Clinton intimates, they came back with words such as low key and understated to describe the series of sessions she planned with small groups of voters in Iowa and other early-primary states.
But of course they also emphasized that her fund-raising juggernaut is expected to generate some $2.5 billion in campaign cash—“dwarfing the vast majority of her would-be rivals in both parties,” as the Times put it. Perhaps that will be the key to her success.
But the state of the union is not good. The economy faces ongoing headwinds that nobody seems to understand. Its foreign policy is a shambles, with the Middle East on fire and the emergence of a truly ominous threat in the Islamic State, or ISIS. The latter development has stunned the American people into thinking it’s time to suspend their normal delegation of authority to Washington on foreign policy matters. Prospects for war in Europe are at a greater height than at any time in the past twenty-six years. The nation’s debt overhang has reached dangerous proportions. Entitlement spending is out of control. Health policy is in a state of suspended animation as governments struggle with the Affordable Care Act even as a looming Supreme Court decision threatens the underpinnings of the law. New cultural issues are injecting new passions into the body politic. And Washington can’t seem to work in any way that even remotely could render it capable of dealing with any of these problems.
These are times that try a nation’s soul. They demand new casts of leadership, new fonts of thinking, new agendas, new directions. Can Hillary Clinton present herself as the kind of person who can provide this kind of bold leadership for crisis times? Not likely. Will Democratic voters in next year’s primaries turn to her anyway on the strength of her past deeds and survival skills? Perhaps. Will general-election voters usher her and her family back in the White House even in the face of her manifest liabilities? Possibly.
But 2016 could turn out to be one of those unpredictable years in which the pols and polls got it all wrong because of a collective urge on the part of the electorate, lurking under the political surface like a predatory crocodile, to jolt the political establishment in Washington through the sanctity of the ballot box. If so, Hillary Clinton will have to bolster up her game pretty quickly if she wants to survive that kind of development.