2/25/08 Nat'l Rev. 22
IT is a truth universally acknowledged that Hillary Clinton would be the ideal Democratic candidate for the GOP. Almost all the pundits, including most of NATIONAL REVIEW's writers, share this view. The polls suggest that the surviving Republican hopefuls would do better against her than against Barack Obama--and, still more remarkable, that John McCain would actually defeat her. Her initial aura of inevitability has been replaced after the unexpectedly bruising primary battles by one of outright vulnerability. She is seen as a hard-edged, "divisive" figure who would alienate voters simply by being herself.
Conservatives are tempted to believe all these things because they themselves would enjoy fighting Hillary. She would unify conservatives against herself and attract fewer independents than Obama.
But these factors are perhaps outweighed by one other--namely, that almost any Republican is at a disadvantage against almost any Democrat this year. The polls matching McCain against Hillary or Obama against Mitt Romney don't all show this at present. But polls showing the issues that Americans consider most important, or which party they most trust to deal with them, or even simply whether people self-identify as Democrats or Republicans --all these favor the Democrats, sometimes heavily. Democrats are also raising more money than the GOP, and their primaries and caucuses have brought out more supporters. Republican congressmen confirm this hostile trend when they announce they are stepping down this year. All the usual signals point to a Democratic victory.
These disadvantages might be overcome if the GOP were led by a political "natural" like Reagan. Unfortunately, none of the surviving GOP candidates fall into that category. So, even if we grant that Hillary would be easier to beat than Obama, both are so heavily favored to win that this distinction between them hardly matters. What does matter, therefore --and very seriously--is whether there is an important distinction between them in how they would govern. Some conservatives set aside their distaste for Mrs. Clinton at this point and discover unsuspected virtues in her. She is tough, competent, experienced, and centrist (in recent years, at least). Maybe she would not want the historical responsibility of losing a war and would therefore continue the fight in Iraq? Or perhaps she would compromise with the GOP on health care in order to avoid the humiliation of a second failed national plan?
Such things are, indeed, possible. Hillary is a practical politician who is prepared to compromise. But she is also a principled liberal Democrat, so her compromises always move the status quo a little farther toward statism.
Obama is harder to estimate. He is running as a national unifier, but his record is unashamedly left-wing. Conservatives tend to discount his rhetoric while minutely examining his voting record. Usually that is sensible, but on this occasion it may mislead. To begin with, the mere fact of an Obama presidency would change America and the world's view of America--just as the mere fact of a Polish Pope undermined Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. It would demonstrate that the promise of America--of opportunity for everyone--is real and being progressively realized. It would undermine anti-Americanism abroad and the querulous politics of racial grievance at home. It would give Americans a better opinion of themselves, rather as Reagan did, and perhaps launch U.S. politics on a new trajectory.
But what sort of trajectory? Obama's campaign has stressed the idea of transcending race and ethnicity so that Americans see one another as Americans rather than engage in racial pigeonholing. It is magnificent rhetoric, but it has hardly influenced Obama's policies. He has generally stuck to his party's (hard) line on racial preferences, immigration, and other issues tinged with race. At the same time, as both Mickey Kaus and Terry Eastland have noticed, Obama has occasionally thrown out remarks suggesting that he is unhappy with this--and with the racial essentialism underlying such policies. He told George Stephanopoulos last May that preferences should also "take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged." Again, however, he has yet to develop this argument further.
In his fine new study of Obama, A Bound Man, Shelby Steele traces this ambivalence to a conflict within Obama's soul created by his upbringing. To oversimplify a very subtle argument, Obama in the absence of his father sought to found a sense of belonging in his racial identity. But racial identity afforded him nothing but psychological comfort. Obama knew--and in his own autobiographical writings, he fondly acknowledged --that his success in life was due to the habits of diligence and self-reliance instilled in him by his mother and his (white) grandparents. And these were human virtues, not racial ones. Should he today urge young black people to stress their blackness, as establishment America and the Democratic party both do, or to develop the responsible virtues that have helped him to rise?
How Obama answers that question should--in logic at least--determine how he shapes policies. But his answer might well be influenced by how the election influences him. If Obama is elected president --especially if it's a landslide--he will undoubtedly owe this to the votes of crossover Republicans and independents as well as Democrats. It is not impossible that he will be the first Democrat since LBJ to win a majority of the white vote. And he will enjoy more goodwill on Inauguration Day than anyone since Ike in 1953.
Political calculation alone would mandate that he govern in such a way as to keep the good opinion of these voters. But he would also realize that they had placed their trust in him in an unusually serious way. They would be looking to him to govern in the spirit of a colorblind national unity and to encourage the "vigorous virtues" in all groups. It would be a very coldhearted statesman who could resist the power of such hopes.
One final consideration: The 2008 campaign could be Hillary's last hurrah. There would be no second chance for an inevitable candidate who had lost.
By contrast, Obama has a series of attractive prospects ahead of him. Let's look at some of them.
One. He defeats Hillary and wins the presidency.
Two. He defeats Hillary but loses narrowly in November--and runs again in 2012. Unlike Hillary, Obama would likely be given a second chance. He would be a more seasoned campaigner and a more "experienced" politician.
Three. Hillary wins the presidency, but chooses not to run in 2012. Obama would be the almost automatic Democratic nominee. But why would Hillary not be running for a second term? Only if she seemed to be facing inevitable defeat. Those are not the ideal circumstances for a candidate of the same party, but Obama would be sufficiently detached from the Clinton regime to vault over that hurdle.
Four. Even if Hillary were to serve two full terms, Obama would start out as the favorite for 2016.
Five. This scenario is the one sketched out by those Republicans who want Hillary to be the GOP's opponent. Obama loses the nomination to Hillary after a fiercely contested convention and she goes on to lose the general election. But if this happened, Obama would then be the man who could have won the 2008 election if his party had let him; he would be a Democratic version of Reagan in 1976. He would also benefit from the longevity of Republican rule, and his own seasoning as a politician and candidate. He would almost certainly win the November 2012 election--probably by a landslide--and his coattails might sweep other Democrats into the House and Senate.
Only one scenario meets Republican wishes to any great extent--Obama fights and loses the two elections of 2008 and 2012. But just how likely is that?
Of course, none of the above might happen. A massive slump in the first Hillary Clinton administration might keep all Democrats out of power for a generation. But as Damon Runyon pointed out, though the race is not always to the swift, that's the way to bet. Obama looks like he'll be in the GOP's future one way or another. Maybe we should decide to get him over with--and the sooner the better.