Left, right find common ground in scorn for Clinton

March 26, 2007|By Steve Chapman | Steve Chapman,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Everyone knows Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and everyone has a different reaction to her. Some find her as irritating as fingernails on a chalkboard. Some find that she makes their skin crawl. Some run screaming from the room. And some want to drink a gallon of rat poison while lying across a railroad track.

The conventional wisdom is that the New York Democrat and former first lady will be a formidable presidential candidate because she has lots of money, veteran campaign aides, a shrewd political sense and a close connection to a president beloved by Democrats. But those may be nothing next to a couple of fairly major factors operating against her.

The first is that many people in both parties see her as ideologically repellent. Conservatives think she's an arrogant busybody with an addiction to big government. The left regards her as a cynical trimmer who can't admit when she's wrong.

The second is that many people, in both parties, just can't stand her. You want a uniter, not a divider? Mrs. Clinton has a way of uniting people who ordinarily would be pelting each other with eggs.

That explains the appeal of the new YouTube spoof, modeled on Apple's famous "1984" Super Bowl commercial, which portrays her as a blandly sinister Big Sister on a giant screen, uttering phony platitudes to an army of robotic slaves. It ends happily when a blond female athlete sprints in and hurls a sledgehammer at the screen, obliterating the image.

The ad would draw equal ovations if it were shown at a meeting of MoveOn or the Heritage Foundation. Which raises the question: If the right regards her as a dangerous leftist and the left regards her as an unprincipled accomplice in the Iraq disaster, who really likes her?

It's not as though she warms the hearts of moderates everywhere. Her husband was a master of triangulating between the two poles. But Mrs. Clinton's efforts to place herself in the sensible center suggest naked opportunism, not hardheaded practicality.

Any candidate can suffer reputation damage during the course of a bitterly fought election. But Mrs. Clinton arouses an exceptional amount of dislike even before we've been reminded of her flaws.

In a recent USA Today/Gallup poll on the presidential candidates, only 19 percent of those surveyed had an unfavorable opinion of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Rudolph W. Giuliani had only a 22 percent unfavorable score. But 40 percent had an unfavorable opinion of Mrs. Clinton. A December poll found 47 percent of Americans would not even consider voting for her. Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, says she can't remember a major party presidential candidate whose negative rating was so high at the start of a campaign.

Conservatives, of course, remember her angry response when her husband was accused of having sex with Monica Lewinsky - which she dismissed as a smear from a "vast right-wing conspiracy." It turned out her enemies were telling the truth and she was not.

But even many Democrats find her impossible to take. A recent online poll by The Nation, a leftist magazine, asked readers to name her "greatest weakness." Among the choices it offered, besides her refusal to apologize for supporting the Iraq war resolution, were "her rigid, poll-driven style" and "her tendency to stomp all over her critics."

Much of the support she has comes from people who wish her husband could serve a third term. But weak nostalgia is a poor campaign theme. And Mrs. Clinton fails one of the most basic tests: personality.

This is someone who would be in our living rooms every night for at least four years. Looking back on recent elections, the candidate who wins is usually the more likable: George W. Bush over Al Gore, Bill Clinton over Bob Dole, George H. W. Bush over Michael S. Dukakis, Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter. Polls indicate that the aversion to Mrs. Clinton is less about her politics than about her as a person, and overcoming that sentiment will not be easy.

As the campaign proceeds, some people will be hoping for her to succeed. But I'm betting a lot more will be rooting for the blonde with the sledgehammer.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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