The primary campaign is by no means over, but the media and the blogosphere have now realized that the unstoppable Hillary Clinton juggernaut they have been building, image-wise, for these past 3 years is, in fact, eminently stoppable. The inevitable Democratic nominee is now one more big loss away from having to get the nomination Corrupt Bargain-style, and/or risk digging herself an even deeper hole by breaking out the racial codewords again. That seemed to work short-term in New Hampshire but also galvanized black primary voters down south behind Barack Obama and turned the race around. Ezra Klein of the The American Prospect has one of the better recent commentaries on Hillary’s troubles, “The Underperformer.”
We historians know that Olympian historical contextualization of everyone else’s opinions is a sure way to alienate friends and family, so I say, keep it on the blog. To wit:
As historians could have told Hillary, and the media, “inevitability” is about the most evitable thing in politics. Has the “inevitability strategy” ever worked? Let’s ask the long line of prohibitive front-runners whose proud ships ran immediately aground as soon as actual voters were sighted: Ed Muskie, Nelson Rockefeller, Mitt Romney’s dad, the list could go on and on. I remember when John Connally and Howard Baker were big presidential names. Incumbent presidents have gotten the nomination through inevitability, only to have it flop in the general election. Remember Carter and Bush I’s Rose Garden strategies?
Inevitability may have worked occasionally in the Early Republic, for John Adams in 1796 and James Madison in 1808, but that was before such a thing as a nomination process was even invented. Alexander Hamilton’s plan of swapping Adams for a Pinckney might have done the job if there had been a Federalist Super Tuesday in 1796 or 1800. De Witt Clinton might have given Madison quite a shock if could have taken him on in a Pennsylvania or Massachusetts primary. Congressional caucus nominations meant never having to burst the Beltway bubble, if I may be permitted one final anachronism, er, counterfactual.
Back here in the modern world, when will the media learn that those early poll numbers measure nothing but name recognition? For the vast majority of citizens who do not follow politics closely, telling a pollster that they supported Hillary Clinton for president 1 or 2 years before the election was more akin to saying yes, they had heard that the most famous woman in America (non pop-star category) was running for president against that Jock Edwardson — the haircut guy — and noted Irish revolutionary or Muslim poet Brock O’Bama.
Once the identities of everyone else in the race came into focus, Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate did likewise: she was a deeply polarizing figure who brought along most of her husband’s baggage — especially his penchant for calculating triangulation — and little of his charisma; she was on the wrong side of the issue that Democratic primary voters cared most about, the war; and her track record of “proven leadership” began with mismanaging the only real chance at national health care the U.S. has had in my adult life. In addition, she just has not run a very effective campaign. How could Clinton possibly have been such a towering figure in the Democratic party for as long she has and still not have state organizations strong enough to do well in caucuses and navigate the delegate selection rules? Like most inevitable front-runners, she took the DC-centric view that fundraising and press coverage was more important, and waited for the electoral tides to come in. Oops.