The question looms over the Democratic primary: Why are rank-and-file Democrats so determined to nominate Hillary Clinton for president? With her lead now growing and her vote share registering in the mid-40s, she is increasingly likely to win the nomination. Why?
There is every reason why the Democrats should be more cautious. Desperate to win and bring eight years of Republican rule to a close, they realize that Hillary is a red flag to many voters and would be the most polarizing nominee they could select. While Obama or Edwards could likely reach out to independents and even Republicans, Hillary cannot. One either loves her or hates her. Her very candidacy elicits memories of all the Clinton scandals, from Whitewater and Marc Rich to the gifts to the Rose Law Firm, the Chinese campaign contributions, the New Square Hasidic pardons, the Lincoln Bedroom and Monica. Why do Democrats willingly take on that baggage when two relative virgins beckon as alternatives? And why do they want to nominate the first woman to run for president when there is an obvious danger that sexism could yet rear its ugly head? Why take these risks? Indeed, why do they seem to almost insist on taking them?
Democrats today are seeking a warrior, a gladiator, not a president when they cast their ballots in their primaries and caucuses. Angered by the so-called defeat of 2000 and scarred by the upset of 2004, there is an intensity to their desire to win that dwarfs all other emotions and considerations. They are not nominating a president. They are nominating a candidate. They are not interested in the credentials of a possible president in selecting their standard-bearer; they seek the characteristics of a fighter, a combatant, one who will win.
Hillary’s demonstrated ability to overcome adversity and triumph is the quality that most appeals to Democrats. Were she to star in a reality TV show, it would be “Survivor.” She has taken the worst the Republican machine can deal and overcome it. She has mastered the Karl Roves of our politics and earned the affection of her party&rsqu o;s voters for doing so.
Her battle scars are her accolades. Her ability to come back from Gennifer Flowers, healthcare reform, the loss of Congress, the grand jury subpoenas of Kenneth Starr, the denouement of the truth about Lewinsky, the ensuing impeachment, the carpetbagger issue as she journeyed to New York, the pardon and White House gifts scandals and her early support of the war in Iraq are the real items in her résumé that interest her party’s voters. They care less what kind of president she would be and more that she probably can become the president.
When she says she can “hit the ground running,” she pretends that she is addressing her vast public policy experience. But it is irrelevant that she was in the White House for eight years. So was the pastry chef. But what is relevant, and inescapable, is that she did lead the president’s crusade to overcome the efforts of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” to bring him down, and it is that experience which endears her to the base.
This affection for Hillary the Gladiator makes the appeals of Obama and Edwards largely irrelevant. They might be good men. They might be good presidents. But can they win? Are Edwards’s decency and civility barriers to being tough enough to beat the GOP machine? Is Obama’s desire to rise above partisanship the right attitude to take into a food fight with the GOP? Democrats have their doubts. But about Hillary’s zest for combat and her ruthlessness once in the ring, they have no concerns.
So Hillary does not polarize her party ideologically. Instead, she compares with her opponents in a time warp. She is the candidate of the present. Edwards is the candidate of the past, the man who, like Rocky’s brother-in-law Paulie, might have been a contender and would have been very good. Obama is the candidate of the future, the young man with prom ise and so much talent. But for today, for now — it’s Hillary.