Can a person with no experience, no achievements, and no likability fool a majority of voters?
Hillary Clinton has formally announced she is running for president. Thus begins one of the most interesting and consequential political experiments in American history, one that will unfold over the next year and a half. We are going to see if a candidate for president with no real-world experience, no notable achievements, and no charisma or likability can fool 62 million voters into making her president.
Some may argue that we already conducted that experiment with Barack Obama, but there are several important differences. As a candidate, Obama could at least pretend to be likable. He made all the right noises about “no blue state America, no red state America,” promised “hope and change” for an electorate reeling from two wars and the Great Recession, and sold voters the notion that he would transcend the old politics of government gridlock and zero-sum partisanship. Also, he had a nice smile and could read a teleprompter well.
More important, Obama was just black enough to make voters think that by electing him they could leave behind the old racial guilt drummed into America for the last 60 years, and finally reach the sunny uplands of racial reconciliation and harmony. Thus they were already predisposed to give him the benefit of the doubt and provide him with qualities they so longed for him to possess but, as we learned, he didn’t really have. His lack of practical experience; the long lacunae in his personal history; his dodgy friendships with race-baiters (Jeremiah Wright), terrorists (Bill Ayres), sketchy ward heelers (Tony Rezko), and apologists for terror (Rashid Khalidi); his numerous gaffes blunders, and verbal stumbles; and his record as a dyed-in-the-wool leftist––all were outweighed by the mere fact that he was “black.” Not scare-the-white-folks black, but as Joe Biden said, “The first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
That reservoir of goodwill, that desperate desire not to appear “racist,” and that deep yearning to move beyond the racial melodrama, along with a besotted left-wing media covering his flanks, played a large role in getting Obama elected twice, the second time in the teeth of blunders and scandals that would have sunk a Republican, and perhaps even a different Democrat.
But the Obama phenomenon strikes me as a one-off, a fortuitous conjunction of our dysfunctional racial obsessions, grievance politics, multicultural delusions, and the economic downturn. Some will want to blame the Republican candidates as well, and there’s room for criticism of campaigns waged with the preemptive cringe. The question now is, can Hillary put that same lightening back in the electoral bottle?
Part of me thinks not. First is the fact that unlike the fresh-faced Obama of 2007, Hillary is the epitome of the old, insulated, D.C.-insider celebrity pol. She’s been on our screens for over 25 years, and most of the images evoke scandal, lies, sordid humiliation, and political skullduggery. Her public persona is one of lust for power, prestige, and money, most of which she has obtained not by her own efforts, but by marrying Bill. And she is a political dunce, unable even to fake interest in other people, or to hide her contempt for the “everyday Americans,” as her campaign patronizingly calls the voters who will decide whether or not she should be president. And let’s face it, in a world awash with 24/7 high-resolution video and image scrutiny, she’s unattractive, old, and overweight. No, that’s not sexist, for those same unfair, subjective judgments of image doom Chris Christie as well, just as they mean that no man less than 6 feet tall will ever be president again.
Finally, I don’t think the “first woman president” meme is as compelling as “first black president.” These days more women than men are enrolled in college, they live longer, and they are less likely to be victims of violent crime. Despite the “77%” myth, when data are controlled for experience, type of job, and personal choices such as childbirth, women earn as much as men. We’ve had women in high positions from Secretaries of State to CEOs, at rates that far outstrip those of black Americans. By all measures of well-being, women on average are far ahead of blacks in terms of privilege and power. It is a tacit admission of this truth that the “war on women” canard depends on making up sexual assault statistics, or complaining about the oppression of paying for one’s own birth control. Women have made too many advances over the last 50 years to sell people on the notion that electing another rich, Ivy League graduate to the presidency would have some earth-shaking significance.
So imagine Hillary with all these negatives out on the campaign trail––meeting and interacting with people, handling the neurotic or hostile heckler, answering tough, probing questions from real journalists, constantly being burdened by on-going scandals like Benghazi-gate or server-gate or foreign-money-gate, endlessly being photographed and filmed in postures or expressions that magnify the flaws no make-up, new hairstyle, or pantsuit can hide, and debating a Republican who odds are will be smarter, younger, more fluent, and more accomplished than she, and I just can’t see how she can win.
But let’s not be hasty. Hillary will run with probably a $2 billion war chest and media courtiers protecting her night and day. More important, any Democrat starts out a presidential race with several advantages. Just California, Illinois, and New York have over 100 Electoral College votes, and no Republican is going to win those states. Any Democrat pockets in advance a large majority of minority votes. Any Democrat can depend on large majorities of public employee unions, teachers from kindergarten to university, young people, single women, and the millions receiving social welfare transfers. By some estimates, that represents 45-47 percent of the electorate.
And voters, both Republican and Democrat, vote their interests, a truism that many find objectionable, but has been a banal fact of democracies since ancient Athens. And for many voters, a big federal government redistributing wealth from the few to the many serves their interests. But as James Madison said over and over, voters also have “passions” as well as interests. In the Founders’ day, the various Christian denominations and the disputes over slavery were the main sources of voters’ conflicting passions. Today, many voters have adopted progressive ideology as a pseudo-religion, a collection of ideas and assumptions that provide a meaningful narrative for their lives.
Radical egalitarianism, for example, is a key tenet of this belief. As Aristotle pointed out long ago, if people are equal in some respects––if they have equality of rights and opportunity, for example––they will want to be equal in all respects. They will want equality of result, not just opportunity. But as Madison said, “the various and unequal distribution of property” creates “distinct interests in society.” And those visible distinctions of wealth create envy and resentment, which in turn make attractive the narratives of unfair manipulation by “Wall Street” or the “1%,” or statements like the one Hillary made during her virtual campaign announcement: “The deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top and there is something wrong with that.” Some voters look favorably on those who promise to un-stack that deck and redistribute wealth more equally, and they accept a Leviathan federal government and its intrusive regulatory agencies, not to mention its metastasizing debt and deficits, as the price to pay for removing those inequities.
Throw in other tenets of the progressive faith––saving the planet from carbon, running other people’s lives, solving conflict through negotiation, and eliminating sexism, racism, ableism, speciesism, lookism, heteronormativism, and cisgenderism, to name a few of the exotic progressive deadly sins––and you have a large congregation, perhaps one big enough to elect the unelectable.
So the experiment of the next 18 months will show us one of two things. Either Hillary’s personal and political deficiencies will turn enough voters against her, or the progressive church will number enough members to overcome them. Of course, many other factors will affect the outcome. The quality of a Republican nominee who runs a campaign designed to win rather than not to offend, a Democrat challenger in the primaries who damages Hillary, some unforeseen event like a terrorist attack or good (or bad) economic news––all will play a role. But in the end we will wake up on November 9, 2016 having learned something either heartening or depressing about ourselves and our future.
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