Clinton: The newest New Democrat

July 26th, 2013

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Democrats have a history of plucking presidential candidates out of obscurity: Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. Republicans are supposed to go for whomever is next in line, particularly if they have run before: Richard M. Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney.

It looks like just the opposite for 2016.

In the latest Iowa poll, Hillary Clinton completely dominates the Democratic field with 56 percent of the likely caucus vote (she came in third in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, behind Barack Obama and John Edwards). No other potential Democratic candidate gets more than single digit support. It’s Clinton’s turn.

And for the Republican nomination? The top choice of Iowa caucus-goers is “unsure” (36 percent), followed by Senator Marco Rubio (11 percent), Senator Rand Paul (10.5), Representative Paul Ryan (9), former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (8.7), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (7.7) and 2012 Iowa caucus winner Rick Santorum (6.7). Meaning, the Republican race is wide open. In 2016, Republicans may very well end up plucking a candidate out of obscurity. Hey, it’s worked for Democrats before.

Clinton will be 69 years old on Election Day 2016 — the same age Ronald Reagan was on Election Day 1980. Could someone that old take over leadership of the New America coalition that Obama brought to power? Republicans are gleeful at the prospect of running against her. “The idea that we’re at the end of her generation and that it’s time for another to step forward is certainly going to be compelling,” Karl Rove told the New York Times.

The New America is not primarily about age — though young voters are among its strongest supporters. It’s about diversity and inclusion. It’s hard to see how the election of the nation’s first woman president would not be a victory for diversity and inclusion.

Would young voters buy that argument? Apparently, yes. In this month’s Quinnipiac University poll, Clinton leads New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the strongest Republican contender, by better than two to one among voters under 30 (58 to 25 percent). Among older voters, Clinton and Christie run neck-and-neck.

Support from young voters is not a function of a candidate’s age. It’s a function of a candidate’s association with new ideas and change. Reagan got 59 percent of the youth vote in 1984 — when he was 73 years old.

Clinton — new ideas? “The reality is, when you look at the Democrats,” Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (age 42) told the Times, “they’ve got old, tired ideas being produced by old, tired candidates.”

But surely a woman president is a new idea, just like an African-American president was in 2008. The real imperative for Clinton to run is to protect the legacies of two Democratic presidents — her husband’s and Obama’s. If Republicans win control of the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016, both legacies could be obliterated.

After a president has been in office for eight years, voters usually want something they are not getting from the incumbent. One thing voters associate with Bill Clinton’s presidency is good times (in every sense of the word). While Americans believe the economy has improved under Obama, most are not ready to say times are good. In CNN polls, 35 percent say economic conditions are good today. When Clinton left office, the figure was 82 percent. “Remember, the last three or four years he was here, we reduced the debt and created 22 million jobs — pretty good deal,’’ Senate majority leader Harry Reid said about Bill Clinton on PBS NewsHour, adding, “She’ll handle things probably even better than he did.’’

Obama comes from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. His core support comes not just from African-Americans but also from educated upper-middle-class professionals. He embodies a tradition that goes back to Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis. The populist wing of the party goes back to Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Clinton — and most of all, the Kennedys. The populists were champions of the working class. Above all, they were fighters.

One thing voters are missing in Obama is fight. Obama couldn’t even get a bill through the Democratic Senate to require background checks for gun purchases — something 90 percent of Americans wanted after the Sandy Hook massacre. Hillary Clinton warned us about that in 2008, when she offered this memorable put-down of Obama: “Now I can stand here and say, ‘Let’s just get everybody together. Let’s get unified. The sky will open. The light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing. And everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.’ Maybe I have just lived a little too long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be.”

By staying in the 2008 race until the very end, Clinton demonstrated her toughness. She never gave up. “When I say I will fight for you, I will. It’s what I’ve always done,” she said in Ohio that year. That’s the Kennedy tradition. Edward M. Kennedy was one of the few Democrats who appealed to both the progressive and populist wings of the Democratic Party. The Clintons can do that, too.

Since 1980, the Democrats’ biggest losses have been with white working-class voters, who were once the core of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition. The only Democratic presidential candidate since 1980 who carried non-college whites was Bill Clinton in 1996 (51 percent for Clinton, 49 percent for Dole). In the 2008 Democratic primaries, non-college whites went decisively for Hillary Clinton over Obama. She wiped Obama out in Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania — states dominated by working-class white voters.

It’s a constituency that’s diminishing in size, however. Democrats can win without them — as Obama proved in 2008 and 2012. He built a new coalition based on minorities, women and younger voters.

But Democrats have still got to carry a respectable minority of working-class whites to remain competitive. In the Quinnipiac poll, Clinton gets a 44 percent favorable rating from non-college whites. Obama? 34 percent.

If Clinton were to run and win in 2016, it would be a terrible shock for Republicans. Just like George H.W. Bush’s victory in 1988 was for Democrats after two terms of Ronald Reagan. 1988 forced Democrats to wake up and say, “We can’t go on like this.”

Bill Clinton emerged to carry that message to Democrats. What Republicans need is a Clinton of their own.

This article originally appeared in Reuters.