On the matter of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy I find myself holding opposite and irreconcilable views: “That can’t possibly work,” and “She’s inevitable.”
Her candidacy can’t work because of the deep, daily cascade of scandals that would disqualify anyone else. State Department emails on private servers, stonewalling Congress; the family foundation that appears to function in part as a high-class slush fund and that, this week we learned, paid a significant salary to that beacon of philanthropic spirit Sidney Blumenthal, a political operative and conspiracist whose nickname in the Clinton White House was “G.K.,” for “Grassy Knoll.” Also this week these headlines: “Clinton Foundation Donors Got Weapons Deals from Hillary Clinton’s State Department,” and “FIFA Donated Thousands to Clinton Foundation.” FIFA of course is the international soccer organization under criminal investigation for bribes and kickbacks.
It is simply unbelievable that a person whose way of operating is so famously and chronically sketchy can be chosen as president. Her policy judgments throughout her career will come under question. She is good at politics in terms of how she perceives the game and generally makes decisions within it—good enough to be an almost certain presidential nominee. Yet she is charmless on the stump and seems always to be hiding something in interviews. In speeches she continues to do strange things, such as speaking with a Southern accent this week in South Carolina.
Why does she do that? Is she trolling the press? They know she hates them. A friend who is a veteran journalist recently explained why. In the late 1980s and early ’90s Hillary knew the boomer press was on the Clintons’ side ideologically and culturally—they were Democrats, and often friends. But she was surprised over the years to learn that didn’t mean they were on the team. They reported the couple’s scandals, wrote critical articles and books. She felt, and feels, betrayed. She thought they were friends, and thought that meant fealty. It’s not a plus to have a distanced, unfriendly relationship with journalists. (Republicans, on the other hand, can generally operate without such personal bitterness. They never had the illusion the press was on their side.)
Here is why Mrs. Clinton is inevitable:
In five of the past six presidential elections, the Democrats have won the popular vote. They enjoy certain locked-in advantages. The party itself is united and wholly organized around the idea of winning. (There is, however, a sense that its best talents have been exhausted in the two Obama terms, and its rising talents haven’t had the chance to learn what losers know.) Mrs. Clinton has 100% name ID, has one opponent in an old socialist to whom she can be publicly kind, and is connected to a former president whose presidency is looked back on with a sort of encrusted nostalgia—good economy, relative peace, colorful and singular messes. She has lasted long enough to go from wide-shouldered yuppie with angry blond hair to cooing grandmother. Soon they’ll be calling her “Mami.”
The polls show that even at this low point in her campaign, with the daily scandal cascade, she continues to beat all GOP comers. This week’s Quinnipiac survey shows her leading the closest Republican challengers, Rand Paul (46% to 42%) and Marco Rubio (45% to 41%). Republicans take comfort that this world-famous, unopposed icon is under 50%. I’m not so sure.
But this is interesting. Somehow the polls recently have failed to spot rising conservative tides—in Britain in May, in Israel in March and in the U.S. last November. Maybe pollsters are all watching MSNBC and the BBC and operating within a constantly reinforcing thought-loop. Maybe they suffer from epistemic closure.
Most interestingly—and this is what political scientists call “the part that makes you want to shoot yourself”—Quinnipiac reports a majority of voters do not feel Mrs. Clinton is “honest and trustworthy.” They made that judgment by a margin of 52% to 39%. That means a good portion of those who support Mrs Clinton do not believe she can be trusted to tell them the truth. The nice way to think of that is: “Americans sure are over the heroic conception of the presidency!” Another nice way: “Americans shrewdly pick presidents based not on personal virtues but on other qualities, such as experience and ideological predisposition.”
A less nice way is: “Wow, you’d vote for someone even you don’t believe? You might want to trust a president when the nukes begin to fall. What’s wrong with you?”
On the GOP side, elite opinion has started talking about how two dozen candidates are careening around in a big messy jumble. They say it will wind up like 2012, “a clown-car Indy 500 with cars hitting the wall and guys in wigs littering the track,” as someone noted then.
But that’s not how I see it this time. It is an impressive and largely accomplished field. Almost all in it might be reasonable presidents—oh, how Obama has lowered the bar!—maybe half would probably be good, and a quarter very good. Soon John Kasich, with one of the best résumés of any candidate ever—18 years in the House, six of them as Budget Committee chairman, and two terms as governor of Ohio, re-elected by an astounding 31 points—will likely declare. I don’t know if he knows where the base is, but he seems to know where America is.
And they are all talking serious issues. A few weeks ago it was Mr. Rubio at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week on “Morning Joe,” Mr. Paul tackled who and what caused ISIS. Some see the question as the pointless picking at a scab, but it may help get us back to essential questions: What assumptions should govern our choices in the Mideast, what have we learned, how do we separate the crucial from the important?
It would be nice if Mrs. Clinton spoke on such matters. Instead she continues her listening tour. She’s been on many of them over the years; it’s how she likes to campaign. But what is she listening for? What is she trying to hear? She’s been in politics 40 years; she knows what she thinks. It’s not really a listening tour; it’s a say-nothing-and-nod-empathetically tour. It would be nice if attendees—if they could get past the vetting—would start saying surprising things to which she could nod. “The French Revolution was bad!” Empathetic nod. “Why worry about stupid Christians who don’t have the brains to move out of the Mideast?” Empathetic nod, finger on chin, eyes narrowed in the Thinking Look. “Broad amnesty would worsen chronic unemployment and is in that sense a way of giving up, and on our own people, many of whom were blasted out of manufacturing jobs by globalist hacks in Washington—but it will keep wages down, give you a feeling of creamy moral goodness and nail down the Hispanic vote, so all good, right?” Relatable nod, followed by blinking get-me-out-of-here look.
They could force her to be forthcoming by finding out what she’d nod to.