John Osullivan

Republicans must heed the voters to beat Hillary

The battle for the Republican nomination

Republicans must heed the voters to beat Hillary
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After almost a year of the candidates manoeuvring for position in the national and state polls, one aspect of the 2008 presidential election campaign remains as constant as the North Star: Hillary Clinton is the favourite. She is backed by most party regulars, supported by a national machine, advised by the most brilliant politician of her generation and perched on a consistent lead in the national opinion polls. Almost the only thing that could lose her the election is her personality.

Behind their hands, observers compare her to Richard Nixon in 1968. Like Nixon, Clinton has a withdrawn, cool and calculating personality. The comparison does not end there. Both had apparently been forced to surrender hope of high national office previously — Nixon when he lost the California gubernatorial election in 1962, Hillary when she left the White House amid controversy over dodgy pardons and official gifts. Both reinvented themselves. Nixon became ‘the new Nixon’ (that kind of thing was newer then), Hillary a centrist Senate Democrat popular in upstate rural conservative New York as well as in the state’s urban liberal heart. Both succeeded, entering the primary season as favourites.

The comparison is not exact. Nixon emerges from it as the warmer and more vulnerable personality. But then we know more about him as a result of memoirs that cover his near-breakdown over Watergate; Hillary has yet to reveal any similar private anguish (though sorely provoked). Nixon was also the more intelligent of the two — in part because he has a claim to be the most intelligent president of the 20th century, overshadowing Reagan and Kennedy in that regard. But his superiority also reflects Clinton’s intellectual limitations.

She is undoubtedly shrewd, intellectually well-organised and the mistress of policy detail. But her famous 1969 commencement address at Wellesley, often touted as evidence of her intellectual precociousness, is banal where it is not incomprehensible — a compendium of 1960s clichés that invite Terence Rattigan’s joke: ‘Elle a des idées au dessous de sa gare.’ More recently, when dealing with a difficult question in debate, she floundered, seeming lost without a prepared reply. In short, she thinks like a swot.

Now the point of the comparison: Nixon almost lost the 1968 election. Though he left the convention ahead by 30 points, his eventual margin of victory was less than 1 per cent. Republicans hope Hillary will have the same impact, only about 1 per cent more so.

This hope is the obverse of their desperation. Almost every opinion poll brings portents of fresh disaster for the Grand Old Party. George W. Bush has a favourability rating in the low thirties. The percentage of voters who define themselves as Republicans has fallen sharply since 2004. Democrats now enjoy a 15 per cent lead in party identification over Republicans. According to Karlyn Bowman, the American Enterprise Institute’s charming but dispassionate analyst of public opinion, the surge in Republican identification achieved in the Reagan years has finally petered out. Democrats are all but certain to consolidate their recent takeover of Congress with further gains.

Hence the GOP, desperate to retain at least one branch of government, now invests all its hopes in defeating the (maybe) vulnerable Hillary. But its search for the right candidate has had one unusual feature. Instead of shrinking as no-hopers dropped out, the field of candidates has grown larger and more ‘diverse’ as the campaign has proceeded.

Stage One: ‘moderates’ Senator John McCain and Mayor Rudy Giuliani were the frontrunners for the nomination. What mattered was which one would beat the other before going on to beat Governor Mitt Romney, who looked like cornering the undiluted conservative vote. McCain was the favourite in this mini-primary but soon faltered. He got on the wrong side of the key 2007 immigration debate in which an alliance of the White House, both party leaderships, corporate America, the labour unions, the media, Hollywood and the Catholic Church in support of liberal immigration reform was defeated by grassroots conservative groups and Republican rebels with the support of most voters. Giuliani too had once supported similar reforms, but McCain’s name was on the bill. As well as alienating almost all Republicans, McCain was also losing his media constituency annoyed by his backing for the Iraq ‘surge’. Giuliani pulled ahead, but not very far.

Stage Two: as the frontrunners faltered, Romney began to look like a potential winner. A successful entrepreneur, business executive and Republican governor in a Democratic state, he had the looks, style and résumé to be a president. He ran a well-calculated campaign appealing to moderates and conservatives. He made few, if any, mistakes. But he had converted to some conservative positions, such as pro-life politics, only recently, and he had not converted from a Mormonism that some Christian voters consider an un-Christian sect. Finally, he seemed too neat and corporate — like a candidate perfectly designed for an unsatisfied niche in the political market. These flaws, notably the allegations of ‘flip-flopping’ halted his bandwagon, perhaps temporarily.

Stage Three: with none of the original candidates satisfying conservatives, an internet write-in campaign began hunting for a new Reagan. It settled on former US Senator Fred Thompson who, in addition to being conservative, is a successful actor who has played presidents on-screen. Thompson flirted with running too long; his eventual declaration was an anticlimax. Since then, his progress has contradicted the conventional wisdom that predicted a glossy but politically empty phenomenon. He has advanced serious and brave policies on taxation, immigration and much else, but his performance on the campaign trail and in debates has been patchily disappointing. This may be because — as Dick Morris predicted — Thompson’s most important rival is the district attorney he plays on Law and Order, who is invariably better lit, better made-up and better scripted than the real-life politician.

Stage Four: as each new Reagan falters, the search for the next one reaches deeper into the political backwaters. Congressman Ron Paul, a craggily amiable Texas libertarian, has enjoyed a brief prominence (see page 36). He has now been overtaken as the ‘dark horse’ by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a favourite of the religious Right and a spell-binding preacher-politician in the southern mould. Huckabee dominated the most recent Republican debate because he could give clear, serious answers about religion in politics as well as wittily evasive rejoinders (Q. What would Jesus do about capital punishment? A. ‘Jesus had the good sense never to run for public office.’). Though Huckabee’s star is still rising, his southern populism on trade and economic questions — and the blatancy of his appeals as a ‘Christian leader’ to Iowa’s religious voters — are so irritating to most Republicans that he is uniting the party nationally against himself. Still, he may end up as vice-presidential candidate if Rudy Giuliani heads the ticket, to soothe the religious Right.

Now that we are entering Stage Five of the primary process — i.e., actual elections decided by real voters — there is still no clear front-runner. The unusually crowded field renders it impossible to predict the eventual GOP standard-bearer. Candidates have to calculate the impact of caucus and election results (initially in small and unrepresentative states such as Iowa and New Hampshire) not only on their own national standing but also on the prospects of their most dangerous rival. Thus, McCain, Giuliani and Thompson are thought to be pleased that the latest Iowa poll shows Huckabee (at 32 per cent) leading Romney (at 20 per cent) by a large margin. Yes, he also outdistances them by larger margins. But they reckon that a Huckabee victory in Iowa would derail the Romney strategy of using wins in Iowa and New Hampshire to boost his anaemic national standing.

Romney seems to agree. He tried to counter Huckabee’s rise on 6 December by giving a speech reconciling his Mormon faith with the US tradition of the separation of church and state. Most commentators thought he spoke well and looked ‘presidential’. But Huckabee is still ahead of him in Iowa, as Giuliani is ahead nationally. Sensing an opportunity, Thompson is starting an Iowa bus tour to revive his faltering campaign. Romney retains a healthy lead in New Hampshire. But McCain may recover there, helped by the support of the state’s major newspaper, and thus nationally as his immigration bill fades from memory. In this game of three-dimensional chess, calculations are complex and predictions impossible.

That is especially so when the calculations of all Republicans that their eventual opponent will be Hillary are cast into doubt. Recent polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina all show Barack Obama either a few points behind Hillary or even slightly ahead. She remains well ahead of all rivals in national polls. Is this discrepancy caused by the unrepresentative nature of these state polls? Or does it justify Republican hopes that the more voters are exposed to Hillary’s personality, the more they dislike her? The best guess is that Hillary remains the clear frontrunner but that she will have to fight hard for the nomination.

Defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire would not halt the Hillary bandwagon, based as it is on the support of Democrat power-brokers across the US, but it would dent the impression of her inevitability. If that happens, she cannot afford the kind of prolonged misstep she made on the treacherous topic of illegal immigration. It would weaken her image of competence, which is currently her strongest card, and encourage supporters of the others to turn out. Fortunately for her, neither Obama nor Senator John Edwards looks capable of actually winning. Campaigning as a populist, Edwards comes across as a wealthy trial lawyer recycling his jury appeals to make corporations pay. Obama, on the other hand, is transparently a decent, sincere and intelligent, if very liberal, candidate. He appeals greatly to almost all Americans, whites more than blacks, since they would like to prove their anti-racist credentials (to themselves as much as to others) by voting for a black man. But he also strikes most voters as young and inexperienced. He is the first choice of many for the 2012 election.

So unless the impossible happens — e.g., a brokered convention coup for Gore — Hillary will probably get the nomination through strong organisation, loyalties bought over the years and sheer attrition. And if the present anti-Republican national mood persists to next November, the same qualities will get her the presidency. But if the Republican candidate who emerges from the scrum is attentive to voter anxieties on health care and economic security, then all bets are off.