- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Hillary still made history. She did it on many levels and in many ways. She was the first woman to have a serious chance to win a major party’s nomination. She redefined the role of first lady - both in and after the White House. She even redefined the first family - only in the case of “Clinton” is it unclear which spouse is intended. Yet with so many historical “firsts,” the focus remains riveted on the single way she did not make it.

Even in not winning the Democratic Party’s nomination she made history. Her failure to win the nomination ranks as one of the greatest upsets in presidential politics.

No non-incumbent frontrunner had ever run so far in front for so long. In fact, Hillary Clinton was a de facto incumbent. Since 1992 and her husband’s first presidential campaign, she had held the spotlight. Her 18 years in it was far longer than most presidents’ - with whom the public is generally saturated in eight years at most. Since leaving the White House, she had been her party’s unofficial leader, easily eclipsing both Al Gore and John Kerry in star power. Not content to be just a former first lady, though this certainly would have sufficed to launch her run for president, she won and then grew into the role of senator.

When she did enter the race, she did so with an unmatched organization and establishment support. So superior seemed her effort that at times it appeared her rivals were merely filling out the field, though they were accomplished politicians. She defined the race to the point that it was as much about her as the incumbent President Bush. When early setbacks came, they only seemed to add drama to a foregone conclusion. Even when the end came, it was as much about her losing as it was about Sen. Barack Obama winning.

Some will engage in hindsight predictions that she alienated substantial numbers of voters or could not raise sufficient money. Certainly she had high unfavorable ratings in the general electorate, but these were primarily conservatives and independents, not Democratic primary voters. And money only became an issue in the wake of Mr. Obama’s incredible fundraising, heading in to the primaries Hillary was hardly underfunded.

All this begs the question: Has anyone ever been more likely to win a race and failed to do so? No shortage exists of famous races with surprising outcomes. Bill Clinton in 1992, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon in 1968, John F. Kennedy in 1960, and even Warren Harding in 1920, all were winners that no one could have predicted. But this only makes them surprises, not upsets.

Even the most famous upset of modern American history, Harry Truman’s 1948 presidential victory over Thomas Dewey, does not quite measure up. First, most of that “upset” was really unscientific polling’s overestimation of Dewey’s strength. Second, Dewey had lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 (albeit respectably) and did not secure his party’s 1948 nomination until the third ballot. Finally, his play-it-safe approach, in which he reprised the role of hare to Truman’s tortoise, amounted to him virtually eschewing campaigning for coronation. Truman overcame his own poor ratings and expectations, but he did not beat a surpassingly strong Dewey.

Each of these historic races has elements but not the crucial component of this year’s Democratic primary outcome. Usually they were open fields that produced great races but not great upsets. The only true giants in these races - even if Dewey were considered one - did not run. Lyndon Johnson withdrew in 1968 and Teddy Roosevelt died in 1919 before he could run in 1920. In contrast, Hillary ran and ran and ran - all the way to the end. She finished stronger than she began - an element that further makes this race such an enigma - and she only seemed to run out of primaries, never will. Some pundits will seek to lay blame for her defeat at the feet of many - her husband, her advisers, her gender, her opponent - but none can blame it on her lack of determination or advantages that she brought into the race.

Political precedents do not really exist. Perhaps sports gives us the closest comparison and it too occurred this year. The New England Patriots were similarly positioned to make history. The first team to go a perfect 16-0 in the regular season, their Super Bowl victory was all but guaranteed. It was their presence and their loss that defined that game. History will forever see it as the game that the Patriots lost, more than the one the New York Giants won.

In both cases, there is an inherent feeling that if the primary season were held again or the Super Bowl played over, the outcomes would be different. But history only writes its story once. It does not do sequels or hypotheticals. In so doing, Hillary still made her mark on it, just not all, or how, she wanted to.

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget 2001-2004 and as a congressional staff member 1987-2000.

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