Poor Mrs. Clinton: She has everything going for her in the '08 race

September 26, 2007|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

I feel sorry for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Not in any lot-in-life way. Mrs. Clinton is a smart, fortunate woman who has enjoyed successes few will ever experience, from being first lady to serving in the U.S. Senate. If Senator Clinton stumbles and loses the Democratic primary contest she comfortably leads - and with it, the chance to be the first major-party female presidential nominee and first female president - don't shed a tear for her.

The reason I feel sorry for Mrs. Clinton is that if she wins the Democratic nomination, she assumes the burden of being the Democratic presidential candidate in what may be the most favorable cycle her party has had since 1976.

That may sound like yet another in a long list of blessings. But the pressure that would immediately fall on Mrs. Clinton's shoulders to win the White House would be immense - and the blame, if she were to lose, would be endless and merciless.

No matter how you slice it, the Republicans are in bad straits. The generic two-party identification numbers that were dead even a few years ago have since turned into a whopping 15-point Democratic advantage. President Bush's unpopularity has sunk to Jimmy Carter levels.

The GOP presidential field is in disarray. After backing a failed, unpopular war in Iraq in order to curry favor with conservative voters, the nominee will have to sell the war's continuation to a skeptical nation during next year's general election. For the party that usually hands its nomination baton to the "next guy in line," the field is so wide open, yet so unsatisfactory to GOP primary voters, that a month ago, "none of the above" was leading the race.

There are other Democratic advantages, too.

The party won majorities in 2006 at every level of government except the presidency, so it now boasts a greater number of congressional, gubernatorial and state-level surrogates to campaign on behalf of the 2008 ticket. In recent weeks, I've seen reports that at least four Republican state parties, including Maryland's, are at or near financial bankruptcy.

If the electoral environment were not advantage enough, Senator Clinton has put together a campaign organization that will make the Bush-Cheney juggernauts of 2000 and 2004 look like dog-and-pony shows. In effect, what Mrs. Clinton has methodically built is the equivalent of a shadow Democratic National Committee.

Former DNC chief Terry McAuliffe, technically her campaign chairman, doubles as her finance chairman. Mr. McAuliffe, the greatest bagman in his party's history, will make sure she has ample money to finance her bid.

As for research and field operations, Senator Clinton has a platoon of staffers and top-flight wonks developing her policy papers and talking points. Longtime Clinton family confidant Harold Ickes is building sophisticated field targeting, and with a big assist from the pro-abortion-rights women's organization EMILY's List, Senator Clinton will have an army of foot soldiers.

Communications and spin? Former White House communications director Ann Lewis is a wordsmith nonpareil, and familiar friends from Bill Clinton's famed 1992 "war room," including Paul Begala, James Carville and Mandy Grunwald, are either on payroll or always just a phone call away.

Simply put: If she wins the nomination, Senator Clinton will be locked and loaded. She won't need a donor or volunteer list, a dollar, a poll result or a research memo from DNC Chairman Howard Dean.

This is not to say that the DNC will become irrelevant. It may still provide a big cash drop, as it has done in the past, for the eventual nominee. And it still funds and controls the national convention. But given the unprecedented power of her organization, and with the national party increasingly focused on party-building at the state level, Mrs. Clinton would be less dependent on the DNC than any nominee in recent decades, if ever.

With a favorable partisan tailwind behind her operational juggernaut, does all this mean Senator Clinton won't deserve the Oval Office if she wins? No way. Nobody backs into the White House.

In fact, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Mrs. Clinton not only can win the general election but would be heavily favored. I'll even go out on a limb and predict that, if nominated, she'd be the first Democratic nominee in 44 years to get at least 51 percent of the popular vote.

But her positioning means that if Senator Clinton loses, the election will clearly have been a referendum on - and rejection of - her and her alone. With everything at stake, her negatives will have finally caught up with her.

I'd wilt under that kind of pressure, and that's why I don't envy her one bit.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@hotmail.com.

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