Speed Bumps On The Road To Hill

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 3 –

  • What if Hillary just isn’t all that?
  • Menendez faces corruption indictment
  • With a weak bench but a target-rich Senate map, Dems turn to retreads

To: Our readers
From: David Freddoso

President 2016

Hillary Clinton: “The Hillary Juggernaut,” the Salon headline blares. “Why Clinton may already be unstoppable.” The piece, by Walter Shapiro, goes on to make the case that Clinton’s ability to raise money 
effortlessly, the potency of her husband as a surrogate (as well as nostalgia for his presidency), and “emotional support from a significant percentage of women voters” makes her nomination inevitable.

It sounds like a pretty strong argument. But the article appeared almost exactly nine years ago, in March 2006. Democrats entered the 2008 presidential cycle with the full expectation that Clinton would be the Democratic nominee. So did Republicans — entire books were written and a now-famous Citizens United movie was produced in order to thwart her. Yet after a drawn-out primary process, the Democrats decided they could do better. And they did.

The Hillary die-hards hung on as long as they could in 2008. But Clinton’s married name was ultimately insufficient to compensate for her sub-par personal and campaigning skills, her lack of “likeability,” and her perfectly adequate but not commanding grasp of issues. The contrast between Clinton and Barack Obama could not have been more pronounced.

Obama was the rarest of candidates, possessing not only the psychological advantage of the underdog but also an obviously superior intellect, discipline, and charisma. In the beginning, he could not yet raise Clintonesque sums of money from big donors, but he more than made up for that by simply not having the Clinton sense of entitlement. This made his race against Hillary an even more pronounced version of Skywalker versus Evil Empire than it might have otherwise been.

Democrats looked at Clinton, and then they looked at Obama. They were ready to be seduced.

Primary struggles have a lot less impact on general election processes than political journalists like to pretend — after all, they have to justify all that time they spend in Iowa. But a candidate’s weaknesses that show up in the first phase tend to last into the second. For example, Mitt Romney’s lack of charisma and message discipline was on display throughout his last-man-standing GOP primary in 2012 — and then reared its head once again in the general election.

Which is a roundabout way of saying there is no reason to expect Clinton will be a completely different person from the “likeable enough” candidate of 2008 who delivered canned applause lines in a grating sing-song voice and blew her status as the prohibitive frontrunner against an unlikely insurgent.

That is not to say that Republicans can necessarily beat Clinton. They surely will not field a nominee who can campaign as well as Obama or have his appeal. But the point is that Hillary Clinton puts on her pant-suit one leg at a time. 

Email scandal: And Clinton’s vulnerability has never been as clear as it was last week. The massive scandal over her exclusive use of unsecured private email for State Department business dominated last week’s news cycle. Even her most dogged defenders cannot spin it away — it is, as Ron Fournier put it, “a scandal for anyone with a brain.” It has gained traction far beyond the small world of conservative media, breaking in the pages of The New York Times and dominating coverage in every other mainstream publication. 

Without going through the scandal’s details (you can read them here or here), it is enough to say here that the incident at least suggests a level of incompetence and personal entitlement that either matches or supersedes previous foibles on her part. It’s not just the disdain for government transparency — in fact, Clinton’s conscious choice to place herself above federal records and transparency regulations may well have helped foreign intelligence services access secret diplomatic information or even classified documents, as her personal email server has been described highly insecure. It is also impossible to know that she has not deleted emails pertaining to government business that the State Department will never obtain for its records, as the system she used was apparently designed to make it easy to dispose of records.

The incident might even have legal implications for her — a contempt motion has already been filed in two federal Freedom of Information cases. If that angle pans out, she will probably be working through the mess at the very time she needs to be raising money for and staging a campaign.

Consequences for Democrats: Democrats had grown comfortable with the Obama political machine, and its ability to turn out majorities that seemed to threaten the GOP’s very existence through the sheer force of demographic change. But what if (as we have previously suggested here) that was really all about Obama, and not about the Democratic party at all? If so, Democrats must replace the Obama juggernaut that inspired so many with a new, different coalition like Obama’s. Clinton presents such an opportunity — to bring single women especially together behind potentially the first female president.

But as Clinton struggles, the party finds itself looking into the abyss. Only now do Democrats finally understand how thin their Clinton lifeline really is. At the moment, there is no plan B, and it’s nearly April. Were Scott Walker or Jeb Bush to suffer a major campaign-ending scandal, Republicans would have (at least arguably) qualified replacements waiting in the wings. Not so the Democrats, whose stable of qualified contenders has been largely wiped out by voters in the last five years.

So far, there are no serious contenders who could take Clinton’s place and start off as anything but a huge underdog. Certainly, no one can look to former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley as the man who will inspire the next successful Democratic coalition. Joe Biden? Please! New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo? Fuhgeddaboutit. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders? He’ll be fun in debates, but a president he is not. And forget about the candidates who want to challenge Clinton from her right — former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb or former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts? A much more interesting choice than any of these, and a proven fundraiser who might be capable of toppling Hillary even though she just won her first elected office two years ago. But what about the general election? And for that matter, is she even slightly interested in running?

The situation is bad enough that Al Gore is suddenly planning a trip to Iowa. If that isn’t panic-inducing, it’s hard to imagine what would be. 

Meanwhile, the stakes are pretty high. If Democrats lose the White House and at the same time fail to gain five seats in the Senate in 2016, Obama’s entire legacy could quickly go up in smoke. Such an outcome would nearly guarantee the GOP a Senate majority through 2020 (just because of the 2018 map). Obamacare, environmental regulations, and other executive actions (including on immigration and health insurance) and a whole host of other progressive gains could be quickly wiped out. Even entitlement reforms would be on the table.

The Supreme Court could also take on a more strongly conservative bent, with young justices replacing Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and perhaps even Ruth Bader Ginsberg (assuming she doesn’t announce her retirement under Obama).

This is the bottom line on the email scandal. Clinton might still win, and it’s also possible she could have lost even without a scandal like this one. But as matters stand, the hopes of a party and an entire political movement have been placed in jeopardy by one woman’s poor judgment and belief she is above the law. Put not your faith in just one prince.

Senate 2015

New Jersey: New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, D, faces a federal corruption indictment. It has not gone unobserved that Menendez is the Obama administration’s more ferocious Democratic critic on Iran, and that the leak of his charges comes just as an Iran deal is imminent. There is no evidence that the two matters are causally related, but the one has already had an effect on the other. An indictment obviously and dramatically weakens the position of the Senate Foreign Relations ranking member, and discredits an important critic at a key moment. It at least slightly complicates prospects of passing any tough-on-Iran legislation over an Obama veto — a possibility that has always been on the cards.

For now, Menendez insists he will not resign. If he does, Gov. Chris Christie, R, will have an opportunity to appoint another short-term Republican senator (as he did in 2013), bringing the GOP tally in Congress’ upper chamber to 55 out of 100.

Republicans’ prospects for taking over the seat for the long haul in a general special election are not terribly good, given their weak bench in the state and the apparent lack of party-building that went into Christie’s re-election in 2013. Republicans failed, recall, to make gains in the state legislature.

Then again, there probably hasn’t been a better opportunity in decades — a Democratic corruption scandal, no obvious star Democrat to take over the seat, and potentially a Republican incumbent.

Senate 2016

Even the losers get lucky sometimes, as the song goes. Democrats are looking at a very favorable 2016 Senate map, and have a lot to look forward to if things go their way. Just like the Republicans did in 2014, they are trying to recruit plausible candidates for even the more difficult Senate races, on the chance that the environment will go their way and they will have their chips on the table at the right time.

But they also have to contend with the fact that their benches have been mostly wiped out in two consecutive midterms. And so they have been working hard to recruit retreads to take on marginal Republican incumbents — in three cases, candidates who not long ago were ousted as incumbents by the voters in statewide elections. In some cases, it actually seems like a promising strategy. In others, maybe not so much. 

In Wisconsin, former Sen. Russ Feingold, D, who lost in 2010 to Sen. Ron Johnson, R, is widely expected to run again for his old seat. Johnson will have the resources he needs, but he is probably the most vulnerable sitting Republican senator in America right now. Feingold, a hero among progressives, will probably be the Democrats’ strongest challenger in America, and is surely the best candidate they could possibly find in Wisconsin right now. The race will be a challenge to see whether there’s anything left of the Left in the state.

In Ohio, former Gov. Ted Strickland, D, has already announced he will take on Sen. Rob Portman, R. Strickland, who were he to win would be 75 years old by the time he took office, is heavily favored in the primary against token progressive opposition, but he is a big underdog in the general election. Strickland lost the governorship in 2010 to John Kasich, R. Portman is one of the most inoffensive, disciplined Republicans in Congress.

Democrats have spoken of coaxing Kay Hagan, who just lost her North Carolina Senate seat, into running against the low-profile Sen. Richard Burr, R. She would be a formidable challenger — and she probably ran the best losing campaign of 2014. But the negative ads against her seem to have stuck for now. Burr leads all comers by a similar high single-digit margin in a recent PPP poll, but only against Hagan does he actually reach 50 percent.

The strategy of running candidates who have been dethroned recently by the voters often works in House races — a handful of House Republicans returned to office this way in 2010. But it isn’t that common in the Senate. No defeated senator has accomplished what Feingold and Hagan are setting out to do — winning a Senate seat after being ousted from the Senate in an election — since 1956. As for Strickland, it is harder to check. At the very least, no current U.S. Senator is a former governor who lost re-election.