Consider this: a relentless careerist with a history of shady business dealings, who set back the cause of health care reform a generation, jumped to Congress in a calculated ploy, lost a presidential campaign to a complete neophyte, accomplished exactly nothing as a cabinet secretary, and who for all intents and purposes is an aging brontosaur of center-left conventional wisdom, is the candidate of choice among progressive millennials.
Hillary Rodham Clinton’s seemingly inexorable rise has spawned hyperventilation among the media, buoyant optimism among Democrats, and pit-of-the-stomach dread among conservatives. Few political figures can hold the nation’s attention for 22 straight years, but Hillary has done it. Now, her supporters are begging her to ask the country for another decade in the spotlight. By the end of a second Hillary Clinton administration, it would be January of 2025. By then, Hillary Clinton will have been a fixture of American politics for 33 long years.
While it remains too early to speculate on the likelihood of the (nightmare) scenario here offered, the possibility casts a pall over the Right. The Clintons have played the elusive quarry to the GOP’s Captain Ahab for over twenty years, and today’s conservatives are running out of harpoons to hurl from the starboard bow. The Whitewater affair, commodities trading scandals, Bill’s impeachment, a grueling unsuccessful run for President, accusations of negligence during the Benghazi attack – none of these have stopped the national fascination with Hillary. Indeed, with each obstacle she has sidestepped, Hillary has taken on a veneer of strong-willed competence that befuddles opponents and has fans measuring the drapes at Pennsylvania Avenue.
What makes Hillary’s career so interesting – and mysterious – is the staying power of her popularity despite changing times. There have been hiccups in the public perception of Mrs. Clinton, especially surrounding the failure of Hillarycare, the Whitewater scandal, and the rigors of the 2008 primary campaign. But today, Hillary Clinton is named by nearly a fifth of Americans as the woman alive today that they admire most. How did she accomplish such a feat?
Perhaps uniquely among major political actors in recent American history, Hillary Clinton has benefited from generational replacement in the latter half of her political career. Hillary is beloved by young liberals, their eyes wide in admiration of her globe-trotting diplomatic efforts and their minds filled with the cornucopia of Clinton administration jobs surely waiting around the corner. These are many of the same youngsters who swooned over Barack Obama, but they’ve traded in their graphic tees and freshman syllabi for Ezra Klein’s latest fashion trends and sweat-stained applications to State Department internships. These supporters don’t remember Whitewater. Most weren’t politically aware when her leering, boorish husband ran the show.
A generation of voters has emerged that don’t see the same Hillary their parents saw. She is no longer thought of as an ambitious First Lady, beset by nagging scandals and a symbol of the pervasive shadiness of the William Jefferson Clinton era. Today she’s “Madam Secretary,” a political juggernaut headed for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and taking every last international affairs major and women’s lib stalwart with her (or so they hope).
The American Enterprise Institute is out with an intensive public opinion study on Hillary Clinton, which examines some 5,000 polls over her 22 years in the public eye. The study highlights her impressively durable popularity, which seems to be based on an overall perception that she is competent, intelligent, and experienced. Hillary was a popular First Lady for the most part, though her approval rating fell to low levels during the 1994-1996 period, as the failure of her health care designs became apparent and a Republican wave buffeted her husband’s administration. During this period, a growing number of respondents thought that something illegal, or at least highly unethical, had occurred in the Whitewater real estate deal and in “other matters while Bill Clinton was Governor of Arkansas.” By 1997, over half of Americans considered her actions in the Whitewater matter illegal. This marks the beginning of a trend in the mountains of Hillary poll data – her trustworthiness has long been held as suspect.
Hillary’s poll numbers jumped during the Lewinsky scandal, and when our national grotesques finally vacated the White House, her approval rating hovered in a respectable range of 50 to 60 percent. It is important to note that Americans assumed, even hoped, that the Clintons wouldn’t return. Even as recently as March of 2007, respondents disagreed with the statement, “It would be good to have both [Hillary] and Bill Clinton in the White House again,” by a 50 to 37 percent margin. A majority of Americans considered her unqualified for the highest office at the end of her husband’s second term. Despite doubts, despite Clinton fatigue, Americans liked Hillary. But they certainly were not “Ready” for Hillary.
A Senate career remarkable only for its brazen carpetbagging and near-robotic adherence to the party line came and went. Americans were skeptical. They wouldn’t vote for her as their Senator, but they considered her qualified enough. Most considered the move a career stepping stone.
Then came the 2008 run. She was in it to win it. It seems that more ink has been spilled over that primary season than the fall of the Roman Empire, and I won’t add much to it here. We all remember the Iowa catastrophe, the New Hampshire tears (“she’s *gasp* human!”), the bruising fights in Pennsylvania, a new word – “superdelegate” – and at long last, her bitter surrender. She lost due to a variety of factors, but perhaps the most salient was the generational contrast between her and Barack Obama. She was the past, he was the future. She was the safe choice, the experienced, sober leader. He was going to stop the “rise of the seas.” A restless Democratic electorate took a chance on the woefully unqualified junior Senator from Illinois, and the rest of the country played along. President Obama nominated Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, she was confirmed 92-2 in the Senate, and the story was over. Or so we thought.
Now she’s the favorite to win it all. Mind numbing, yes, but supported by the polling data. Fifty nine percent of Americans approved of Hillary Clinton in a February 2014 poll, and she leads all probable GOP challengers in key states.
In a recent piece, Jonah Goldberg argues that the pivot to Hillary (which is going better for Democrats than the pivot to Asia, I might add) stems from an attitude change among rank-and-file liberals. Obama’s problems (see: IRS, HSS, VA, etc.) seem to have grown out of a shocking lack of managerial skill. In response, Democrats want to run with a firm hand at the tiller in 2016, and Clinton is the natural choice.
I think Goldberg is pretty much correct – Democrats want to consolidate Obama’s erratic but promising gains for liberalism by picking a well-liked competent manager. But as a young voter myself, I’m naturally interested, in this case repulsed, by the opinions of my cohort. The Hillary shock troops aren’t elbow-patch Moynihan liberals seeking to restore order in an Obama world. They’re young folks, especially young women, looking to “make history” and “change the world” with a “transformative” female leader. Why? Because she, like, traveled everywhere!
The AEI study goes into dizzying detail that I won’t examine here, but I urge conservatives to get a handle on the patterns of public opinion that surround the possible Democratic nominee for 2016. It’s not that a Republican can’t beat Hillary. It’s that a Republican won’t beat Hillary, assuming she runs. Already the GOP is revving up a campaign to stop her based on appeals to the less winsome moments of the last Clinton administration. That won’t work. It won’t work because today’s true believer, driving that infuriating Vespa with the “I’m Ready for Hillary” bumper sticker, doesn’t know the cattle futures scandal from a VCR rewinder.
Instead, conservatives must focus on Hillary Clinton’s generally unsuccessful record in public service, from Hillarycare to Benghazi to neglecting to designate Boko Haram a terrorist group. Hillary’s darkest secret is that her list of actual accomplishments is undeniably sparse, and Republicans should make sure that’s the worst-kept secret in America. We must nominate someone who can make the same generational gap apparent that Barack Obama did. And we should remind young people that Hillary is just another ham-fisted wannabe overseer of a decrepit welfare state and a deteriorating culture – in short, a personification of what the Democratic Party has always stood for. It’s time for a change.
—John Henry Thompson is Editor-in-Chief of THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE
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