Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Democrats Need an Intervention, Since Hillary Isn't Electable

Welcome, fellow Democrats. Sit down. First, I want to say that everyone here loves you and is interested in your well-being. But we are concerned that you are engaging in behavior, which has gone on for many years now, that is self-destructive. My friends, you have to stop nominating presidential candidates that will have a difficult, if not impossible, road to winning in a general election. For 2008 purposes, it's time you kick your Hillary Clinton addiction. If you don't, a year from now, there is an excellent chance you will be dead, politically.

A Zogby Interactive poll released yesterday made clear a fact that any student of history or politics could have told you months ago: America is not inclined to elect Hillary Clinton president. According to the poll, Clinton loses in a head-to-head match-up with every one of the five leading Republican presidential candidates. Every single one. Even someone as out of the mainstream as fundamentalist minister Mike Huckabee gets the better of her. The numbers break down like this:

Mitt Romney 43% to 40% for Clinton
Rudy Giuliani 43% to 40% for Clinton
Fred Thompson 44% to 40% for Clinton
John McCain 42% to 38% for Clinton
Mike Huckabee 44% to 39% for Clinton

Okay, I know what you're thinking: November 2008 is a long way off, and polls are not always reliable. Both true. But these poll results reveal underlying facts that should wake up anyone who wants to see a Democrat sworn into office in January 2009.

For starters, as I outlined at length in a July 31 article, Clinton has two flaws that may well be fatal. First, since the 1964 election, the electorate has not chosen a sitting U.S. Senator or a Democrat from a blue state for the presidency. Clinton is both. Second, unlike any other candidate in the race, on either side of the aisle, the electorate is locked in as to what it thinks of Clinton. A July Gallup poll I cited in my July 31 article revealed that 47% of respondents viewed her favorably, but 48% viewed her unfavorably. That means only 5% of the people were undecided, which represents a startling low number. For whatever reason (I would argue it's very unfair in many ways, but that's really not the point), a big chunk of the American electorate does not like Hillary Clinton.

But the Zogby poll released yesterday reveals even greater problems for Clinton. If all the Democrats were similarly trounced in the survey, you could dismiss the whole thing as a Democrat v. Republican issue. But up against a Republican field that has not inspired a lot of enthusiasm among the GOP faithful, Clinton's main rivals, John Edwards and Barack Obama, do considerably better than the New York senator in the pairings.

Obama wins all five match-ups against the Republican front-runners, and in each case, the margin of victory is substantial. Specifically:

Mitt Romney 40% to 46% for Obama
Rudy Giuliani 41% to 46% for Obama
Fred Thompson 40% to 47% for Obama
John McCain 38% to 45% for Obama
Mike Huckabee 40% to 46% for Obama

Even Edwards, who lacks the star power and funding of his two Democratic rivals, gets better results against the Republican front-runners than Clinton, beating four of the five GOP candidates by slim margins and tying the fifth (McCain). Specifically:

Mitt Romney 42% to 44% for Edwards
Rudy Giuliani 43% to 44% for Edwards
Fred Thompson 42% to 45% for Edwards
John McCain 42% to 42% for Edwards
Mike Huckabee 42% to 43% for Edwards

I'm not suggesting that a November 2007 poll, taken alone, should be dispositive in choosing a candidate. But it's a powerful piece of evidence, especially when taken in the larger context of American electoral history, the candidates themselves, and what is going on in the country.

With Bush's approval rating remaining in the basement, and the numbers for the Democrat-controlled Congress even worse, 2008 is shaping up to be a change election. From Iraq to an economy on shaky footing, the electorate may not know what it wants, but it's pretty clear it knows what it doesn't want, and that's the status quo.

Hillary Clinton does not in any way represent change to a majority of Americans. She was first lady during the Bill Clinton years, and part of the government machinery during the George W. Bush era, as the junior senator from New York. She is an establishment candidate, even if she has spent a good part of her time in Washington railing against the administration (although she did vote for the Iraq war authorization in 2003 and the resolution declaring Iran's Republican Guard a terrorist organization this year, neither of which makes one think of change).

After the utter debacle of the Bush administration, with its poorly-planned and executed war in Iraq, consolidation of executive power and utter disregard for competency in government (forever epitomized by Bush telling "Brownie" that he had done a great job in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina), and with the Republican field lacking a truly dominant candidate, the 2008 election is open for the Democrats to grab victory. But Democrats are foolish if they think that the election will be handed to them by default based on the historical failures of the Bush administration. Americans no longer support Bush, but that doesn't mean they will automatically vote for a Democrat to do better. If the Democrats pick the wrong candidate, the Republicans will most likely win.

Which is why we need an intervention for Democrats supporting Hillary Clinton. It's time to open their eyes and make them see the truth. It's time to recognize, as unfair as it may be, that too many Americans don't like Hillary Clinton. It's time to recognize that Americans are looking for change. And it's time to admit that it's a no-brainer as to which of the front-runners in the Democratic field can honestly make an argument for change, and that Hillary Clinton isn't one of them.

Obama may be a sitting senator from a blue state, but there are mitigating circumstances that may allow him to overcome this historical stumbling block. He is new to Washington, and his record opposing the war in Iraq from the beginning is attractive to the majority of voters who are angry about that issue. He also has a long resume of working outside the system, which helps him overcome the "insider" label usually hung on sitting U.S. senators.

As Andrew Sullivan argues in the cover story of the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Clinton is part of the generation that battled the culture wars of the 1960s that have extended through to the modern era. It's been a bitter, divisive confrontation, symbolized by 20 years of see-saw administrations of Bill Clinton and two George Bushes. And the country is tired of it. They want to move on. Nominating another Clinton is not moving on. It's fighting the same battle over again. Obama is not part of that discussion. As Sullivan points out, Obama is a member of the post-Baby Boomer generation, with a completely different set of political and cultural touchstones. He is the true change candidate.

Sullivan also points to the message electing a candidate with Obama's cultural background would send to the world. He writes in the Atlantic Monthly article:

"Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can."

As for Edwards, he brings a lot of baggage to the table, from his less-than-commanding presence to his place on the losing 2004 Democratic ticket, to his policies that fall to the left of his rivals (and, possibly, to the values of the American people). But there is no doubt that he can make the change argument better than Clinton. He issued a mea culpa on his Iraq war vote in the early days of the campaign (something Clinton still hasn't done) and positioned himself as an outsider candidate from the beginning. And it doesn't hurt that he's from a red state and no longer holds a seat in the Senate (having spent the last three years campaigning, first against poverty and then for himself), meaning he will not have to buck two pieces of history to be elected, unlike his two rivals.

To be clear, none of what I have written has anything to do with the qualifications of Clinton, Obama and Edwards, nor do they reflect my belief as to which of them would make an effective president. I like Hillary Clinton an awful lot. I'm proud to be a resident of the state she represents in the Senate, and I think she would make a strong, decisive and smart president. And I don't necessarily believe that Obama or Edwards would do a better job as chief executive.

But the problem is, after the destruction George W. Bush has inflicted on the United States in the last seven years, to me, splitting hairs over which Democratic candidate would do the best job in the White House is a luxury we can no longer afford (like, say, gasoline). Right now, once a Democratic presidential candidate has established himself/herself as being competent and right on most of the issues (as Clinton, Edwards and Obama have already done), there is one and only one issue that should drive our primary and caucus votes: Who can win in November 2008?

The evidence is overwhelming that the answer to that question is not Hillary Clinton. But, with national polls putting her support at close to 50%, Democrats aren't getting this message. Thus the need for the intervention.

Many Democrats, I fear, think that the issue has been decided, that Clinton's nomination is inevitable, so no good would come from fighting it. Under this argument, the belief is that the better course of action is to rally around the presumed candidate and do the best we can. Only, history tells us that it is definitely not too late.

While Clinton still holds a big lead in the national polls, the nominating process is not, as we know, a national endeavor. Rather, we go state-by-state, with the results in early states affecting subsequent primaries. The first test is the Iowa caucus on January 5, and a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll has Clinton behind, with Obama leading with 30 percent, Clinton next with 26 percent, Edwards third at 22 percent, and Richardson hanging in with 11 percent.

More importantly, a lot can change as the actual voting approaches. Don't believe me? Well, look no further than four short years ago. In the beginning of January 2004, Howard Dean had a commanding lead in the polls. A CNN/Time poll had Dean at 22 percent nationally, with no candidate as high as 11 percent, and with a substantial lead in head-to-head match-ups with any of his Democratic rivals.

Six weeks before the caucus in 2004, a Pew Research Center poll looked like this:

Howard Dean 29%
Dick Gephardt 21%
John Kerry 18%
John Edwards 5%

But when the votes were counted six weeks later, a lot had changed. Kerry won the caucus with 38 percent of the vote, Edwards surged into second place with 32 percent (quite a jump from a mere five percent), Dean dropped to third with 18 percent, and Gephardt was a near non-factor at 11 percent.

The bottom line is, 2008 does not have to be an inevitable coronation of Hillary Clinton if Democrats don't want it to be. It's not too late.

So, Democrats out there supporting Hillary Clinton, it's time for that intervention. Open your eyes. All of the evidence says that she will have a much harder road to the White House than her two main rivals. It's time to break the addiction to Clinton that could hand the presidency to the GOP again in 2008, something that we (and the country) would regret. It's time to break the pattern of Democrats shooting themselves in the foot and nominating candidates that any amateur student of history or political science could predict would not be elected by the American electorate (like a Democratic senator from Massachusetts in 2004 or a Democratic governor of Massachusetts in 1988).

Okay fellow Democrats. Let's not make the same mistake again. This is your wake-up call. This in your intervention. We've done all we can. You've been made aware. It's up to you now.