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Hillary Clinton: The past or the future?

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March 1, 2014

Hillary Clinton (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Hillary Clinton (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Want to know the latest meme in U.S. politics? Here it is: Hillary Clinton is a candidate of the past.

It’s been spreading through the political press. Now Republicans are beginning to echo it.

“Elections are almost always about the future,” says the Washington Post, “and Clinton is, for better and worse, a candidate of the past.” The woman who ran for president most recently, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), contrasts Clinton with President Barack Obama. Obama, she told Politico, was “new and different,” while Clinton is an old-timer less likely to excite voters.

Want to see excitement? Look at the polls. In the latest CBS News-New York Times survey, 64 percent of Americans say they would like to see Clinton run for president. No other potential contender in either party — Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — gets more than 33 percent.

The first woman president of the United States is not about the past. It’s about the New America — the coalition that Obama brought to power. It’s a coalition of out-groups — including African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, working women, gays, young people, the unchurched. What holds the coalition together is a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The New America gave us the first African-American president. It’s bound to be excited by the prospect of the first woman president.

Speaking in Florida this week, Clinton said, “Inclusive leadership is really what the 21st century is all about.” She explained, “It is the work of this century to complete the unfinished business of making sure that every girl and boy, that every woman and man, lives in societies that respect their rights no matter who they are, respects their potential and their talents, gives them the opportunities that every human being deserves. No matter where you were born, no matter the color of your skin, no matter your religion, your ethnicity or whom you love.” That’s the credo of the New America.

Her husband has become a magnetic figure on the campaign trail. President Bill Clinton went to Kentucky this week to campaign for Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic Senate candidate who’s running against Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Clinton carried Kentucky twice. Obama, not once. Obama’s job rating in Kentucky is 32 percent.

Democrats are defending seven Senate seats this year in states Republican nominee Mitt Romney carried in 2012. They are clamoring for Bill Clinton to campaign for them. Obama? Not so much.

The story is told that when George McGovern was the Democratic nominee back in 1972, his campaign manager called a Democratic congressman in Ohio and told him, “I have good news. Senator McGovern is going to come and campaign in your district.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” the congressman said. “I’m going to be in Florida, visiting my mother.”

“Wait a minute,” the McGovern manager said. “I haven’t told you when he’s coming.”

“It doesn’t matter,” the congressman replied. “Whenever Senator McGovern shows up, I’m going to be in Florida, visiting my mother.”

Republicans will not be shy about bringing up the bad memories of the Clinton years. Paul recently labeled the former president a “sexual predator.” The Democratic contender in Kentucky had an answer for that. She summed up the Clinton years as, “Goodbye recession, hello prosperity!”

To many Americans, a vote for Hillary Clinton would be a vote to restore the Clinton era — which they associate with good times (in every sense of the word). A vote for, say, Biden would be a vote for a third term for Obama.

Obama has managed to make the Clintons look more moderate. And more populist. In 2012, for the first time, a majority of Americans described the Democratic Party as “liberal.” In 2013 according to Gallup, 43 percent of Democrats described themselves as liberals — the highest figure ever.

Speaking to the Washington Post, Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, criticized “the 1990s Clinton days where big corporations run the show and both parties suck up to them.”

Educated, upper-middle-class liberals like Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio are trying to push the Democratic Party away from Bill Clinton’s New Democratic centrism toward what they regard as a more populist direction.

That’s the populism of the Occupy movement. It’s very popular at Harvard, where Warren used to teach, and Park Slope, Brooklyn, where de Blasio lived. The Clintons’ populist appeal is more authentic. They don’t talk about going after Wall Street or rich people or big business. They talk about bringing back prosperity.

Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, told the Washington Post, “I think it’s really not helpful for the Democrats to turn this into an attack on the 1 percent. . . . As Republicans attack immigration, we attack rich people? If you learned anything from the president, selling hope is better than selling hate.”

A lot of experts believe the Senate is likely to go Republican this year. If that happens, the clamor for Hillary Clinton to run will be deafening. Democrats will see her as the only Democrat who can save the White House. And keep Republicans from gaining total control of Washington and obliterating the legacies of both Bill Clinton and Obama.

Will Hillary Clinton have an easy ride to the White House? Of course not. Republicans will hit her with everything they’ve got. They won’t stop talking about Benghazi. They’ll label her the godmother of Obamacare. As for the first woman thing, Bachmann told Politico, “There was a cachet about having an African-American president because of guilt. People don’t hold guilt for a woman.”

One thing Clinton can’t promise to do is end the polarization of U.S. politics. The last four presidents — two Republicans and two Democrats — promised to do that. They all failed.  In the CBS-Times poll, an overwhelming 82 percent of Democrats say they would like to see Clinton run for president.

What percentage of Republicans would like to see her run? Zero.

Bill Schneider is professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.
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One Response to Hillary Clinton: The past or the future?

  1. Walter F. Wouk

    March 1, 2014 at 8:16 am

    The horror. The horror.