10/23/2007

Republicans and the Clinton Calculus

While the race for the Republican presidential nomination is wide open, as there are five plausible winners (Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, Romney, and Thompson), the Democratic contest is a bit less competitive. Hillary Clinton has combined strong fundraising with strong national and state polling to become the "inevitable" nominee. Of course, Clinton is doing her best to downplay such talk, but most people aren't buying it, especially if her main rival, Barack Obama, is referring to himself as an underdog. (So if Obama is an underdog and Clinton is not a frontrunner, then who in the world is leading the Democratic pack? Chris Dodd?)

Anyway, Republicans, who are acutely aware of Clinton's strength, have all but annointed her as their general election opponent. Several of the candidates have used Clinton as a punchline in their stump speeches and as easy applause lines in the debates, as was evidenced by the recent Republican debate in Florida. Former Bush adviser Karl Rove also weighed in recently, describing Clinton as a fatally flawed candidate.

Clinton, being a skilled politician, has a clever retort to these attacks. She deftly invokes one of her greatest strengths and assets, the gender card, by opining "when you get to be our age, it's kind of nice to have all these men obsess over you." This remark is quite clever because not only does it resonate with women, it's also a humorous remark that softens her image.

So what is the psychology involved here? Why are the Republicans focusing so much on Clinton instead of the other Democratic candidates? Are they taunting Clinton because she is an extension of the Republicans' most reviled boogeyman, William Jefferson Clinton? Or they fear her? Or they trying to goad the Democrats into nominating her? And if so, to what end?

I believe the Republicans' constant railing against Hillary Clinton is akin to the reverse psychology that plays out in our lives daily. Telling children how bad smoking is, for example, often leads children to experiment with smoking. Of course, other children take these warnings at face value and stay away from tobacco altogether. So which one is it? Here are some of the scenarios as I see them:

1. There's a sense that Clinton is the most beatable Democrat in the general election. Most of the polling I've seen shows her outperforming Obama and Edwards against most of the Republican candidates in general election matchups. However, Republicans believe she is the easiest candidate to run against because she has such a long record through which Republicans can comb and turn into attack ads. If Obama were the nominee, for example, they'd have to start over with a brand new playbook, thus losing a bit of precious time as they try and find the best way to attack him. Clinton also has the highest negatives among all the Democratic candidates, so her chances of scoring an electoral blowout are plausibly much smaller. Basically, a Clinton nomination spots the GOP nominee a few points automatically, thus meaning she has less margin for error. And as sour as the climate is for Republicans right now, the possibility of being almost even money against Clinton should provide them some bit of solace. There is also the gender issue, which nobody knows how to accurately assess. Are there legions of closet skeptics and sexists who claim to support Clinton in the polls only to refuse to punch her name at the ballot box? Or is there a large segment of Republican women who will place gender above party?

2. Clinton will galvanize the Republican base so much that even if she wins the presidency, Republican losses down the ballot will be minimized. There are a lot more Democrats running for reelection in red districts than there are Republicans running in blue districts. Independents, moderates and even a few conservatives might like for the Democrats to control Congress, but don't want Hillary Clinton in the White House. Because of her high negatives and polarization, there will likely be a high level of ticket-splitting in which voters may vote for the Republican at the top of the ballot and the Democrats further down the ballot. It is far easier for voters to vote for a straight party ticket. But if Hillary Clinton is at the top of that ticket, straight party voting for Democrats might be a bit less prevalent in some of these red states and red districts. Democrats running in red and purple districts, such as Rep. Nancy Boyda of Kansas, have to be a bit nervous about this.

3. Clinton will be good for Republican fundraising. This is self-explanatory. The Republican Party may be fragmented right now over illegal immigration, how hawkish the United States should be towards Iran, deficit spending, and the Christian conservative agenda. The closeness of the race for the Republican nomination serves as a testament to this. However, these various camps all share the same enemy--Hillary Clinton. So even if disenchanted Republicans are conflicted about donating to support their party, they may be more inclined to donate just to keep "Shrillary" or "the Hildebeast" out of the White House. These campaign contributions should help keep endangered incumbents afloat, such as Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut.

4. A Clinton victory in 2008 will hasten the return of Republican congressional majorities in 2010 similar to 1994 that they can further build upon in 2012. Democrats have been in the political wilderness for the better part of the last 15 years. Now because of Bush's unpopular presidency and the electoral map, there is increasing chatter of the Democrats gaining a 60-seat majority in the Senate. Once considered farfetched, this is now looking increasingly possible. It's still unlikely, but at least it's possible. The Senate map in 2008 and 2010 favors Democrats, as they have fewer seats to defend than Republicans. Many of the Republicans up for reelection in 2008 and 2010 were elected on the coattails of Bush during the heyday of his popularity, especially in 2002. With 60 votes in the Senate, it is much easier to pass legislation over the objections of the minority party, as the majority will be able to easily stop filibusters. As for the House of Representatives, until congressional districts are redrawn after the 2010 census, if the status quo prevails, there will be more Democrats representing red districts than Republicans representing blue ones. How many of these Senate challengers and House incumbents will want Clinton to campaign in their states and in their districts? Will she be a drag on their electoral chances? Republicans argue that their stint in the wilderness will be brief if Clinton becomes the president because voters will want a Republican Congress to put the brakes on her perceived liberalism. However, if another Democrat were to win, especially one of the "second-tier" candidates, all of whom are equally qualified as (if not more than) Clinton without being nearly as polarizing, the GOP could be locked out of the White House and Congress for much longer.

5. Jeb Bush could run as Clinton's successor. While he claims to have no interest in running for president, it is well known that Jeb was the son who was being groomed for the White House, not George W. However, the two brothers' political paths switched when George W. won his election bid in Texas while Jeb lost his in Florida. Even though he doesn't say it, I doubt Jeb Bush's political ambitions died with his electoral defeat. I'm sure he would have loved to run in 2008, but he couldn't because of Bush fatigue. If George W. Bush were more popular, then surely Jeb Bush would be seen as the natural successor to him, especially in light of all the dissatisfaction Republicans have about the conservative credentials of Rudy McRompson. Clinton has successfully allayed many Democrats' concerns about the Bush-Clinton political dynasty. Could she be offering a playbook that Jeb Bush could use should he run in 2012?

6. If the Democrats nominate someone other than Hillary Clinton, the Republicans would be scrambling to find a new political villain. The so-called second tier candidates (Richardson, Biden, and Dodd) have much more experience than Obama, Edwards, and most of the Republican frontrunners (except John McCain). As a result, a lot of Republicans' favorite weapons would be taken away from them, such as "Hillarycare" and her "cackle." Republicans would essentially have to start over from square one if they had to run against Bill Richardson, for example. And even if the nominee were John Edwards or Barack Obama, there is far less dirt on them than there is on Clinton. And because they are considerably less tarnished than she is, words like "scandal" and "questionable ethics" do not stick to them as easily as they stick to Clinton.

Politics never occurs in a vacuum. Almost everything a politician or politico says is calculated or done for some sort of advantage, even if it's not immediate or apparent. Are Republicans trying to talk Clinton up so that the Democrats think she is "a true Democrat" and thus nominate her? (After all, if they're attacking her so much, she must be good for the Democrats, right?) Or are they trying to build Clinton up because they are actually scared to death of having to run against someone else? (This is why political science is a stable profession.)

Whatever their rationale, talk about the Clinton calculus is not going away. The columns and stories doubting her are still being pumped out, like this one from Salon. Regardless of what ultimately happens, for all of Clinton's strengths, there is a very large segment of the American populace that just doesn't like her for some reason or another. Clinton is to Republicans what Bush is to Democrats. And yet, she is blowing everyone away.

And that's what keeps this race so interesting.

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Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.