Hillary’s Democrat Problem

July 6, 2006

There has been much speculation lately over whether Hillary Clinton is a shoo-in, after all, for the Democratic presidential nomination, let alone the general election. I happen to think the doubts are warranted, not so much because of Hillary’s weaknesses, but those of the Democratic Party.

I used to be among those who thought the nomination was Hillary’s for the taking but that she would have serious difficulties winning the general election. After observing her relentless commitment to transforming her image, however, I grudgingly softened about Hillary’s general election prospects.

Sometime later, I changed my opinion again to wondering whether she even had a lock on the nomination. Lately, those doubts have been validated by certain events and the anxiety of Hillary and her handlers.

The New York Post’s Deborah Orin noted that Hillary recently hired a liberal blogger and pandered to antiwar Democrats by promising to abandon Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) should he lose the primary and file as an Independent. More significantly, Democratic strategist James Carville and pollster Mark Penn co-wrote a Washington Post op-ed assuring Hillary’s electability “if she does run.”

What has made this woman of steel so nervous all of a sudden? We’ve all witnessed the antiwar left’s rage at Hillary over her “betrayal” on Iraq. We’ve seen her dissed by Cindy Sheehan and Hollywood elites. She probably thought she could safely write off those snubs as coming from the fringe.

But a June poll in Iowa doubtlessly did get her attention. She came in second place, trailing John Edwards by four percent. This jolt has her scrambling between professing her hawkish bona-fides on the one hand (in the Washington Post), and denying them on the other in the blogosphere and her Lieberman pronouncement.

While Hillary is certainly a unique customer, most of her current dilemma is symptomatic of problems of the Democratic Party at large. Her perceived need constantly to vacillate between pro-war and antiwar positions is definitely her problem, all right, but it is also the problem of the entire party, no matter whom it chooses to nominate in 2008.

You’ll recall that in 2004, Democrats chose their candidate, John Kerry, by default, because compared to the more dynamic and energizing Howard Dean, he was more “electable.” Kerry was hardly anyone’s first choice, and he wasn’t really “electable.” He was just less unelectable than the volatile, unstable Dean, whose volatility and instability better serve at the party chairmanship level, where they can fuel his fire-breathing diatribes against Republicans.

The rifts in the Democratic Party between its extremist base and those sympathetic to the extremism but realistic enough to understand they can’t admit it during national campaigns, simply works against its production of ideal presidential contenders. This is why Democrats aren’t much closer to having a consensus candidate for 2008. While they have a consensus, in fact, they don’t have a working consensus.

They may be more united than ever on most issues, having steadily gravitated toward the left in recent years. But fronting a candidate truly representing their unabashed liberalism would be suicidal, because the nation’s majority is more conservative than liberal, by more than a trifle. This is the root of the Democrats’ problem, not their failure to package or articulate their message as various party strategists and linguists have suggested.

Not long ago, Democrats were all excited about Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, who told Democrats their problem was a matter of semantic framing: They needed to better present their policy positions, from “values” to the war on terror. Now another such egghead is recommending the same magical semantic bullet.

In his new book, “Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism Into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show,” linguist Geoffrey Nunberg advises Democrats to recapture control of the language from Republicans — with words like “fairness” and “decency” — and prevent Republicans from continuing to brand them in negative ways.

Unless Democrats can find another spinmeister in Bill Clinton’s league who can, through a combination of charisma and glibness, convince a plurality or narrow majority that his party stands for something it does not, or unless world events serendipitously work against Republicans, Democrats will still have an uphill battle in 2008.

Whatever attributes Hillary Clinton may bring to the presidential candidates’ table, she is no Bill Clinton in the charisma department. Nor is any other Democrat, as far as we know. Which is why, in the end, I suspect we always find Democrats rooting for a negative turn of events during the Republicans’ watch. It’s their best chance of recapturing control.