Wednesday, December 12, 2007

On electability

I have never been one to push electability as a deciding factor in a political race. It’s sort of an absurd game to try to guess what’s in the hearts and minds of others. If everyone would go to polls and vote for the candidate they honestly think is the best choice, then that alone would make him or her electable.

But what if the other side (as I will call Republicans for the sake of argument and comity) tips their hand? What if they basically telegraph whom they would love to square off against, and, conversely, whom worries them—does that change the role of electability as an evaluative criterion?

I don’t think it is a great analytical leap to say that most Republican strategists are prepping for a campaign against Senator Clinton—and I have to think they are fine with that (well, as fine as you could be working for a Republican this election cycle—that can’t be fun). Clinton is an intensely known quantity with a long and well-documented track record in the public eye. Plenty of people like HRC, sure, and indeed feel a keen affinity for her, but plenty really and truly don’t. Nationally, Sen. Clinton has the highest negatives of any top tier candidate—and those numbers have proven remarkably stable throughout this overlong campaign season.

Like I said, she is a known quantity. There are not a lot of people out there who say, “I just don’t know enough about Hillary to make up my mind.”

There’s not a lot of room on the upside, and, theoretically, there’s not a lot of room on the downside, either.

Except that there kind of is. . . .

It is relatively easy to measure what people think, but not always as easy to predict what people will do. But I’m going to take a crack at it, anyway.

The Republican brand is a mess. At present, it is now hard to see what Republicans can stand for in a public sense. Standing by Bush ain’t gonna get it done. Talking about Iraq is not something any of them would want to do. Cutting taxes is an old standby, but with so many current and looming economic crises, and the gap between rich and poor so gaping that even the establishment media occasionally has to sit up and take notice, that old saw seems elitist and irresponsible. Even immigration, supposedly the Republican’s wedge issue, is, in reality, a disaster in the making: polls show most voters don’t think this is a top concern, and the hatemongering nativist bigotry will likely drive more voters to their opponents than it will galvanize any faux-populist groundswell.

The only thing I can see unifying the Republicans next fall is fear and loathing—an nothing seems to turn up the bass on the Republican noise box (and turn out the base for a Republican candidate) like the looming specter of another Clinton in the White House.

Honestly, part of me just doesn’t get this. A thinking Republican (work with me on this, OK?) would notice that President Bill took his party a great big step to the right when he emerged on the national scene. Just think, under Big Dawg, we had such anti-progressive legislation as welfare reform—which was nothing but a Republican pipe dream only years earlier.

And Bill Clinton ran a coattail-free presidency, expending little of his political capital to help his party down-ticket. Under the leadership of Clinton 42, Democrats managed to do something they hadn’t done in some 40 years: lose control of both houses of Congress.

It took a decade of hard work and a really, really bad Republican in the White House to undo that horror (if you can call this current Democratic majority a real undoing).

Maybe it’s that President Clinton appropriated so many of the GOP’s positions, and did it in such a charming way, that has so many Republicans tearing at their clothes every time they hear his name. Or, maybe it’s just that he was so damn charming.

There is no doubting Bill Clinton’s great personal charisma, and when he is sandwiched between Prescott’s progeny and the progeny’s progeny, William Jefferson looks like a fucking god among men. (Hush, you!)

Of course, Hillary is not Bill. She has a bit less charisma, and actually stands a tad further to right (in my humble opinion). But to Republicans, it’s as if she were the wrong kind of second coming.

So, to my earlier point, the best way to unify the Republican Brand is to give them something to be against—and if you have seen the Republican debates or if you watch or listen to rightwing news/talk/blather, then you know they just love being against Hillary Clinton.

Then there’s the other side. Our side. It has long been the contention that the left-leaning base of the Democratic Party would accept a more centrist candidate for national office because, well, because of that electability issue. In theory, you gotta win over some of the middle, right? If you are to the left of the Democratic nominee, where you gonna go?

Unfortunately, many elections over the last two decades have taught us that while the party faithful might not always have somewhere else to go (Ralph Nader not withstanding), they pretty much always have some place to stay: home.

It is not sufficient to expect a voter to cast his or her ballot for the lesser of two evils, or the closer of two ideologies, because contemporary voters don’t always do that. All too often, the uninspired voter writes off the whole process. They don’t vote against you, sure, but they don’t vote for you, either. Much of the time, they just don’t vote.

While there is much to hope for in the candidacies of any of the Democratic presidential hopefuls, some capture that hope better than others. And some do it worse. To my mind, Hillary Rodham Clinton is in the latter category.

As HRC works overtime to win the general election without first winning the primary, she has taken to couching almost every one of her positions in a vast array of buzzwords and qualifying phrases. I find so little of what she says to be daring or inspired, and, so, I find almost none of it inspiring.

I fear other voters might feel the same way. And while I will be at the polls next November pulling the lever (yes, we still do that in New York) for a Democrat, no matter who it is, because this one is that important, I can easily envision others who just won’t bother. I can because I have met them.

Believe it or not, even here in liberal and engaged New York City, I have spoken with people who think this is all a big game. . . or a big bore. Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton—it’s just an amusement for the powerful corporate interests that really rule the world. (I am not making this up.) George W. Bush isn’t running this time, so they don’t have to worry about him, and they haven’t paid much attention to anyone else.

Democrats need a candidate that will get these people to pay attention. One that will get them, and people all over the country like them, excited. One that will articulate a message in such a way that it will inspire people who don’t normally think elections matter. One who can bring a cause to people who don’t often think there is a reason to vote. One who can give hope to people who don’t believe that what they do at the polls has any consequence.

So far, which is for far too long, Senator Clinton has not been that candidate.

Which brings us back to electability. Again, not a good reason in-and-of itself to choose a candidate—electability is just not an issue like Iraq, or healthcare, or poverty are issues. But, after eight years of horrific leadership, electability is not a non-issue, either. This is an election Democrats want to win; this is an election Democrats have to win.

And win up and down the ticket, I might add.

And, if that’s the way you see it, too, well, then Hillary Clinton is honestly not the best choice. Honestly.

(Oh, and, as to which candidate does worry Republican strategists, well, there is this.)

(cross-posted on The Seminal)

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