Hillary Clinton and the Bush/Rove Playbook

While I have a lot of quibbles with individual parts of the recent Mark Halperin and John Harris book The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008 (not the least of which is their awkward and mistaken attempt to exonerate their respective news organizations from the accusation of Freak Show influence {pp. 41-42}), on the whole it has fascinated me and I feel I have learned a lot from it.  It has given me a fresh perspective on the presidential race to come, and its lessons, I feel, can be applied to potential candidates not even mentioned in its pages.

I wish to address, however, one the main subjects in their book, the viability of the candidacy of Senator Hillary Clinton.  Many times, Halperin and Harris assert that Mrs. Clinton has been diligently learning from the political successes and failures of the past sixteen years; lessons learned not only from her husband, but from the two failed Democratic candidates and the successful George W. Bush.  The book goes on to give a laundry list of choices and tactics Mrs. Clinton may choose in her upcoming campaign, and which traits of hers she will likely play up or gloss over.  I have decided to use this framework and take it one important step further.

My theory is that Senator Clinton will essentially run a tweaked version of the George W. Bush 2000 campaign, though I suspect with fewer push-polls, and less involvement from the Supreme Court.  Senator Clinton will no doubt wield her Democratic Clinton Credentials like a broadsword, but I believe her playbook will be an adaptation of the one written by Karl Rove.  It will, that is, if she's smart.  And she's smart. Read on...

Let us put aside, to begin with, any feelings of hostility we may have about the way Rove plays politics.  I want to be clear, that none of what I am about to postulate should in any way imply that Senator Clinton will utilize the "dirty tricks" portion of the Rove arsenal.  Mrs. Clinton, and I think Democrats as a whole, are above that sort of underhanded nonsense, and the strategies that Mrs. Clinton may borrow from Mr. Rove I assume will be the straight-laced, above-board electorally persuasive ones, all on the merits.

Now, of course, the first thing Senator Clinton will do is read my recent blog entry on how to defeat John McCain.  After she digests that information, here's how I think things may go down.

Prologue - Winning the General Election Two Years Early: In 1999, George W. Bush already looked like the nominee, and behaved like it, too.  Before anyone had run an ad or held a debate, then-Governor Bush presented himself as a moderate, friendly guy who had worked well with Democrats in Texas.  What Bush was doing correctly was painting an image, well before the primaries, of a man who could conceivably do very well in the general election.  By looking like a centrist in the Clinton mold (true to one's party, but not stubborn or zealous), Bush sent the message to the Republican primary voters that he was no Bob Dole, but a guy who could actually win.  

Side note: In fairness to the GOP (as if they needed it), Dole was the right guy to run against the Bill Clinton of 1993, which is when Dole started looking really good to them, the idea being experience and character vs. perceived haplessness and blatant liberalism.  Unfortunately for them, the Clinton of 1995 and 1996 was not who they were ready to take on in the 1996 general, and Dole was trounced.

Hillary Clinton, since the polls closed in November of 2004, has been following a similar tactic.  Mrs. Clinton has been furnishing an image of a centrist progressive, someone who is in touch with the modern world, but who is also sensitive to, and sometimes nostalgic for, older traditions.  She has, almost to a fault, tried to look hawkish on national security in order to neutralize any misgivings the more Cro-Magnon voters might have about a female commander-in-chief.  She has cozied up to Republicans for bipartisan legislation (with Santorum and Brownback on researching the effects of the media on children, or with Pat Roberts on flu vaccines. Can't argue with vaccines!) and on grander national agenda initiatives (as with Newt Gingrich on health care, of all things).

The polls don't lie.  Hillary Clinton is not only the current front-runner, but she is the runaway favorite at this very early stage.  Yes, I know, Joe Lieberman was also ahead at this point last time around, but even being a VP nominee, he did not have Mrs. Clinton's name recognition, or even her perceived chance at electability.  Mrs. Clinton may have a tougher case to make to Democrats than Bush did to Republicans that she is the most likely to win in a general election, but she's doing a pretty good job of it, and will probably succeed in the end (just watch her wipe the floor with John Spencer in her recent senatorial debates, and you'll get a better idea of what I mean).

The Primaries - Cozying Above the Fray: Suddenly unable to sashay away with the nomination after McCain's strong challenge from, of all places, the party's center, Bush could no longer rest on his inevitability laurels.  I imagine Hillary will face a similar crisis as an Obama or Edwards gathers up enough of a storm to start pushing her from a few statewide pedestals.  Bush and Rove dealt with this in two major ways.  The first, which we assume Mrs. Clinton will not use, was dirty tricks, and the birth of what would later be called swiftboating.  More importantly, since Bush the Compassionate Conservative was being pushed out of the center by McCain, he was forced to play up his right-wing credentials, while pushing his centrist stake farther into the dirt.  This gave us the repeated mentions of Jesus and religion, and his visit to Bob Jones University to shore up the conservative base, along with his new "reformer with results" slogan to solidify his following among GOP moderates.

Contrary to what many folks have been saying, especially among the netroots, I don't believe that Clinton will have to try terribly hard to maintain support from the left, as she has taken care to build up good will across the spectrum of Democratic party ideologies.  Considering her record (and her gender), she should have no problem shoring up support from women and most left-leaning organizations who, like the GOP did in 2000, want a candidate who can win.  The Democratic party, it is important to realize, is in a very similar position that the Republicans were in during the 2000 race.  Out of executive power for eight years, the party was hungry for someone who could win.  Some would say that in 2004, the party's desperation to nominate an "electable" candidate pushed them to nominate Kerry when their hearts were not truly invested in him.  Clinton will have that investment of devotion (at least, far more than Kerry did), and will continue to win over skeptics within the party.  Like Bush with the right, Clinton will have to trumpet her liberal credentials a bit more during the primary season, but not so much as to burden her in the general.  The good will she has been building and the image of electability she will have cultivated will be more than enough for her to clinch the nomination, though not without a fight, as it was with Bush.  I can imagine the "Dated Barack, Married Hillary" buttons now.

The sticking point I assume everyone has in their minds at this point is Senator Clinton's vote for, and subsequent support for, the Iraq war.  Though she has not been as vehement an opponent of the undertaking itself as many Democrats would like, I feel the point will be nearly moot.  First off, Senator Clinton has made no secret of her disdain for the administration's execution of the war.  More importantly, by the time the next president is sworn in, chances are the only real issue will be how fast to get out of Iraq, not whether to do it at all.  (On one program, General Barry McCaffery recently put it better than anyone I'd heard so far, saying, essentially, that both candidates will be getting us out of Iraq once in office.  He put it much more sharply, and I wish I could find the transcript!) Regardless of what candidates may have voted for or against, the result will be the same.  We'll be leaving.

The General Election - Reaping the Rewards of Hard Work: With the primaries won in 2000, Bush and Rove were in a great position.  They not only moved to reclaim the center, as is the usual logic in the general election, but because they had invested so much in centrism and "compassionate conservatism" early on, they could go beyond simply drifting to the middle, but fully monopolize it.  Gore, in order to fend off Bill Bradley, had moved aggressively to the left in the primaries, and was never able to fully reestablish himself as the rightful heir to Bill Clinton.  Instead, Bush painted himself as the next Great Triangulator, and Gore was forced to play the Great Populist, defender of the working man (not that he isn't a defender of the working man, but he didn't get to be much else).   There are lessons here for Senator Clinton.

But wait, there's a problem here.  Bush didn't really win that election.  At best, he won the coin-toss.  At worst, it was stolen for him.  This being the case, how is this a winning strategy?  Being that I love answering my own questions, I'll tell you.   It is my opinion that although Gore was losing ground in the ideological middle (this is not to say that Gore was getting his butt handed to him, only that moderates and independents felt they had a difficult choice to make between the two), the national perception was that we essentially had two centrist candidates to choose from.  Bush may have donned the centrist clothes more attractively than Gore, but there were few in the populace as a whole who thought we were choosing between two extremes (how wrong we were!).  How will this be different in 2008?

The difference will be with the GOP nominee, rather than with Mrs. Clinton.  Whoever wins the Republican nomination will likely emerge with a great deal of right-wing baggage.  McCain, the most likely candidate at this point in my opinion, has been courting - and will continue to court - the far right of his party, as he must in order to be nominated.  The GOP is in the midst of a struggle for it's soul, and no matter who emerges as the nominee will have had to spend too much effort pandering to the hard-line conservatives.  Even for someone like John McCain, for so long considered a "maverick", the stain of extremism may be too much to overcome (as his credibility with independents, I think, diminishes almost weekly).

Senator Clinton's years of work laying her centrist foundation, just as Bush had done when governor of Texas, will become the structure she can climb upon during the general election to rise above the taints of ideology.  Just as far-left candidates struggle in national races, in 2008 there is no way a hard-right candidate wins the presidency.  As long as Mrs. Clinton claims the center, fully, and early, the GOP nominee, battered from their wide-open primary, will have nowhere else to go but to the conservative base.  Senator Clinton then needs only to win all the states that Kerry did, plus Florida or the freshly-blue Ohio, and she wins.

Hillary Clinton is, I think, better positioned than anyone in the country, of either party, to be elected president in 2008.  She has made the right friends and fashioned the right image.  Most importantly, she knows how to be a center-leaning policy maker (like her husband), and she now knows how to appear as one, too (like Bush once did, long, long ago).  With Clinton Policy as her substance while using her own, improved version of the Rove 1999-2000 campaign strategy as her vehicle, it's easy to see how she passes the big 270.

I guess we'll see if I'm right.

...A small postscript on the issue of incumbency, which is usually the most powerful factor in any political contest.  Even with the wide-open nature of this upcoming race, I believe the power of incumbency still works in Hillary's favor.  Senator Clinton will be the only candidate to have lived and worked in the White House.  Though she did not hold a terribly official office, her name will be forever associated with that building and the presidency, no matter what happens.  That very association of name just also happened to be shared by Governor George W. Bush in 2000.  I'm no fan of the idea of dynasties, but there can be no doubt that simply having the right name can go a very long way.

Can't it, Senator-elect Casey?

Thanks for reading this piece. Thanks for reading this piece. Come and argue with me some more at FifteenNineteen, the blog on politicking and electioneering. Why not Digg it if you dug it?

Tags: 2008, Election, George W. Bush, halperin, harris, Hillary Clinton, president, Rove, strategy (all tags)

Comments

3 Comments

Re: Hillary Clinton and the Bush/Rove Playbook

Talk about over thinking something...  whew.

Name one state, just one, that Kerry lost that Hillary Clinton can win.  

I went to Pennsylvania to canvass for Kerry.   Kerry only won that state because of the family connection, it was thin.   So add that to the list.  

HRC has loyal supporters, but they are very concentrated.  She can get 70% of the vote in places like NY and California, and still lose the White House.    

by tea in the harbor 2006-11-29 01:25PM | 0 recs
Re: Hillary Clinton and the Bush/Rove Playbook

Ohio. Florida. And, going out on a limb, Arkansas? I assume you will disagree vehemently.

by Qshio 2006-11-29 05:26PM | 0 recs
Re: Hillary Clinton and the Bush/Rove Playbook

Hillary may have been studying how to be President for 16 years but she still has to actually get the votes, which isn't going to happen.  She's going to enjoy he front runner status right up until the voting starts.  She'll probably win in New Hampshire, but I don't see her taking any other early state.  After the early contenders do poorly and drop out their supporters will flock to whoever did well in Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada, etc and it won't be Hillary.

by blueryan 2006-11-29 02:08PM | 0 recs

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