A lot of journalists have been spilling a lot of ink and pixels about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign, coming Sunday to everywhere near you. I want to offer some thoughts as someone who can write a bit more bluntly than most pundits, simply because almost no one cares what I think about national politics. Peel away the false balance, the muddled equivalency, and the desire for drama, the only question at this point is this: “Can anybody stop her?” And the simple truth is that it’s very, very unlikely that anyone can beat Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady, former U.S. Senator ,and Secretary of State. If you were putting honest money down right now in April of 2015, and you were a smart gambler, you’d bet Hillary. Here’s why.
First, she’s running essentially unopposed in the Democratic primary, which means she’ll arrive at the general election relatively unscathed, with a full bank account and plenty of rest. It’s important to remember that this de facto coronation for someone who isn’t a sitting president is very nearly unprecedented in the history of our two-party system. She has a lot to prove to voters in the general election, sure. But with the Democratic party faithful, she starts this ride on day one with a full-blown, golden-ticket sort of mandate. It boils down to four simple words: It’s her turn. I don’t doubt that someone on the Democratic side will challenge her. But it won’t be someone like Barack Obama. It won’t be the kind of candidate who has a serious national network, a healthy war-chest, and a very real shot at the nomination. It will be a protest candidate, a message candidate, someone most likely from the progressive wing of the party who will use the campaign to raise their profile and push their ideas into the national dialogue. And then Hillary will win, if you can even call it that, and she’ll emerge as her party’s standard bearer.
Which brings us to the general election. Here again, Hillary has a remarkable advantage. The simple weird fact in an America where conservatism often seems on the ascendant is that ever since 1992, Democrats have easily, handily, almost casually won 18 states and the District of Columbia which total 248 electoral college votes. What that means is that any Democratic candidate only needs to find 22 additional votes, somewhere, anywhere, to win the White House. Winning Florida would do it. It’s really that simple.
So before we even bother to dissect the GOP’s awkward, fractured, feuding, and ginormous slate of candidates, let’s just pause and remember that Democrats almost always begin presidential races a nose away from the finish line. If it weren’t for the U.S. Supreme Court’s intervention in 2000, it’s very likely that our last Republican president would have been the elder Mr. Bush, not the younger. Let me say this again for emphasis: If not for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to tip Florida to the Republican candidate in 2000, the electoral college system would have produced a Democratic hegemony in the White House over the last quarter century. And the demographic trends that support that systemic tilt have only grown.
To overcome that reality — to beat Hillary Rodham Clinton — the Republicans have to be almost perfect. They have to pick up more than 170 electoral college votes. They have to somehow cobble together all the fractious, angry, isolated wings of their party. They have to take the current crock of candidates and distill them down to someone with the cheerful conservatism of a Ronald Reagan. But that’s really, really unlikely. The GOP is currently extremely good at generating powerhouse candidates who are deeply known and respected regionally or within narrow ideological niches. Think of them as Snapple or Arnold Palmer Ice Tea. Hillary, by contrast is not just like Coca Cola. She’s like Coca Cola Classic. She’s a broad, national political brand, a fixture in the national imagination since suffrage. Okay, I made that last bit up, but you know what I mean.
Hillary’s weaknesses that aren’t really weaknesses
So what could bring her down? What could trip her up? First, let’s dispense with what derailed her in 2008. It wasn’t that she was too conservative. It wasn’t her husband Bill. It wasn’t that she was arrogant or secretive or that she had irritated Maureen Dowd one too many times. What tripped her up was that Barack Obama’s team found a brilliant way to manipulate the math in the Democratic primary system. Hillary’s team basically campaigned in the traditional way, working to win all the big Democratic states that make up the party’s foundation. Obama, meanwhile, brilliantly crafted a stealth campaign to hoover up all the essentially uncontested primary votes in places like Alabama, Alaska, and South Carolina. Hillary went for home runs in big stadiums, while Obama racked up singles out in cow towns. And he won.
This time that won’t happen. Hillary’s brain trust will make sure that no Democratic challenger has an “end run” path to victory. Anyone wanting to topple her and claim the role of standard bearer will have to do it directly. They’ll have to attack her head-on. They’ll have to challenge the family that remains — even after eight years of the Obamas — the First Family of the Democratic movement. So far, there’s simply no one in her party willing to do that.
So what weaknesses remain? Again, let me dispense with some things that won’t matter. Her emails won’t matter. Her addiction to secrecy won’t matter. Her family’s sometimes controversial and icky personal history won’t matter. Benghazi won’t matter. The fact that she and her husband have too much money in their war chests won’t matter. The fact that a lot of deep-blue liberals don’t like her won’t matter. Again, this is Coca Cola Classic were talking about here. We all know that there are things about Coca Cola that are kind of unsavory. But the brand is solid and safe and it still outsells everything else on the market, which means a lot of us keep guzzling it down.
Which brings us to the one thing that actually matters, the thing that could be Hillary’s Achilles heel: Her message. I know this seems quaint and almost 19th century, but even in the age of Super-duper PACs and Koch Brother gilded age shenanigans, it actually means something for a candidate to mean something. And there’s a real danger that Hillary could confuse inevitability with relevance. This isn’t the 1990s. And the fact that she’s linked closely with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, two of the most dominant politicians of the modern era, doesn’t mean she is anything like their equal as a candidate voters can embrace.