As I write this, the results of the Super Tuesday primary votes and caucuses have not yet come in, but the result is foregone: the media that anointed Hillary Rodham Clinton the Democratic nominee and future president eight and a half years ago, and again last spring, will now do so once more. Well, wish enough times for something, and it might eventually come true. But be careful what you wish for. In this case, very careful.
The scenario in this year’s Democratic primary is eerily similar to what it was eight years ago when Barack Obama made off with the prize that was supposedly Hillary’s. Hillary had then the name recognition, the favors to call in and the promises to make, the electoral machinery greased and the party endorsements lined up, the deep pockets, and, last but not least, the Big Dog. For awhile, it seemed that her candidacy for the nomination in 2008 would be unopposed, and it looked that way again last spring in the current electoral cycle. A glance at the inglorious fate of some of her challengers this time around—Lincoln Chaffee, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb—makes clear enough why no one in the Democratic Party was eager to dispute her coronation. Only O’Malley, a small-state governor, ever got as far as a debate platform with her. If Hillary ever noticed he was there, she gave no sign of it.
But then, Bernie Sanders isn’t a Democrat. And the Constitution says that if you’re a native citizen and thirty-five years of age, you can run for President with or without a political party behind you. Maybe Bernie would have been better off doing just that, but he chose instead to seek the Democratic nomination—a seventy-four-year-old, silver-frizzed Brooklyn Jew turned, improbably enough, small town New England mayor and, even more improbably, an independent U.S. Senator. Bernie had no money, no name recognition beyond a few Beltway junkies, and no barber. His voice is croaky and tuneless. His only body gesture appears to be the shoulder hunch of a referee counting a fighter out in the ring. Yet, just four weeks ago, he had Hillary Clinton on the ropes, or at least lurching for her Southern state firewall. His army of volunteers was running rings around Hillary’s machine. A million small donors had offset Hillary’s gilded PACs, and, as in 2008, left her perilously short of funds.
It was like Joe Louis being rocked by a tank-town fighter, and not with a lucky punch or a flurry, but being beaten, punch for punch, at his own game.
Bernie Sanders? Who in the heck is that?
But, of course, you could just have as easily have asked the same question eight years ago of a jug-eared rookie senator with the decidedly unpresidential name of Barack Hussein Obama.
Hillary Clinton is finding out again what the electorate tried to make clear to her eight years ago: that she is the least-loved politician in American public life. But, you know what? She doesn’t care one bit. Like Reese Witherspoon in Alexander Payne’s Election, she is going to be class president no matter who likes it or doesn’t. Or prom queen. Or whatever. She’s been jilted once too often, starting with Bill, and it’s not going to happen again. Don’t bother knocking Hillary down. She just gets up and starts all over.
Maybe the trouble’s just this: Hillary Clinton’s been playing second fiddle all her life. She was First Lady of Arkansas because her husband was Governor, and First Lady of the United States because he was President. She got elected Senator from New York on the coattails of Al Gore, who outpolled her statewide by a substantial margin. In the Senate, she was a dutiful foot soldier who made not a single memorable speech or sponsored a single significant bill. When she ran for president in 2008, her chief qualification was she was the closest stand-in for Bill Clinton, still the most popular politician in the country. That was the closest, too, that we came to being a banana republic, the kind of country where the spouses of deceased rulers routinely succeed them. Hillary blew it, but she got the consolation prize of becoming Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. Her qualification for that was the same as for everything else in her career: she was the wife of Bill Clinton, and therefore the standard-bearer of the Clinton dynasty. Obama’s calculation in giving her the job was based on the first rule of war and politics: keep your enemies in front of you. As long as Hillary had a visible if largely honorific post in the Obama administration, the Clinton machine could not snipe at it. And Hillary herself would be before the public as something other than a failed presidential candidate.
The deal the Clintons and Obama reached was thus a simple and classic one. They would not turn him into a one-term president, something that, given the manifest incompetence he soon displayed in office—kowtowing to Wall Street but losing Congress anyway, giving away the store on health care reform without winning a single Republican vote for it, cluelessly watching the Middle East slide into chaos—seemed all too likely to happen. He would give Hillary a job that offered frequent flier miles and flattering press attention, and a fresh glide path to a future presidential nomination. At the end of the day, her support would be critical to burnishing the legacy she shared with him. His support, in turn, would be crucial to assuring her the African-American vote that would backstop her in the early Southern primaries.
At the beginning of the current campaign, Hillary’s problem seemed to be how to put distance between the unpopular and deeply fatigued Obama presidency and herself without actually repudiating it. But the utterly unexpected challenge of Bernie Sanders forced her to change tack and throw both arms around Barack. Now, her appointed task was to embrace the Obama legacy and, much as George H. W. Bush had done in trying to succeed Ronald Reagan, pledge to consolidate and extend it. Just what that legacy was she didn’t much specify. But she was very clear about one thing: Bernie Sanders threatened it.
Most Americans, of course, have long since turned the page on Obama. African-Americans in particular have been given little reason to rejoice in him. That, however, makes many of them defensive now that his time is up, and thus receptive to a candidate who sings his praises. And African-Americans are, right now, absolutely essential to Hillary Clinton’s success. Never mind that there are fewer black faces in her entourage than at the recent Oscar ceremonies. She is leaning again on her alpha male, Bill, the first American politician to viscerally connect with an African-American electorate. Never mind either that Bill Clinton did nothing for blacks while in office, other than helping to shred the social safety net, build up the prison-industrial complex, and export jobs to Mexico. He visited their churches, sang their hymns, and shared their grits. When no one’s giving you anything else, that means something.
Barack Obama, while cannily withholding a direct endorsement, has made his support of Hillary clear. Barack is not one for much public warmth. When he described Hillary is being “likable enough” in the 2008 primary campaign, he was understood to be plainly saying the opposite. (Bill was even less gallant when he said, á propos his wife’s endowments, that he couldn’t make her taller or younger or prettier. Ouch. I’ll bet that one still hurts.)
Obama has now made a second statement about Hillary, even more reverse-hexed than his first one. He has said that she would be fully qualified to occupy the presidency from Day One. We all know that this president has a habit of saying exactly the opposite of what he means, for example admiring the pristine Alaskan wilderness the day before opening the Arctic up to oil drilling, or championing net neutrality while allowing an industry shill to run the Federal Communications Commission. But his Day One remark may be the biggest howler yet. Hillary Clinton has never shown either competence of judgment or organizational skill. She set back health care reform by nearly twenty years with her failed efforts to enact a program in the first year of her husband’s presidency, a defeat that cost Democrats control of Congress. Her presidential campaign fifteen years later was stunningly inept in its critical early stages, squandering focus, energy, and money, and her present one has had similar pratfalls: as a preview of her managerial style for the Oval Office, it is a portent of disaster. Sanders has been making much of her vote for the disastrous war with Iraq in 2002, but he has made too little of her far more consequential role in scuttling Moammar Qaddafi in Libya nine years later, which produced both a failed state and a boast whose cynicism and brutality would have shamed a Caesar: “We came; we saw; he died.”
Like the Kardashians, Hillary Clinton is chiefly famous for selling herself as a product line, and she has never shown the least capacity for the office she seeks. But the moral arrogance, not to say depravity implicit in the remark quoted above should disqualify anyone from a position of political responsibility, let alone the most powerful job in the world. Heaven help a nation forced to choose between a Hillary Clinton and a Donald Trump. I am very much afraid that disaster lies either way.