Tuesday, March 27, 2007

With every passing week it becomes more likely that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic Party nominee for president. This thought, alone, should provide the strongest possible motivation to the Bush administration and the Washington Republicans to get their acts together so that the eventual Republican nominee for president doesn’t start the general-election campaign in too deep a hole.

The polls that show half the country saying they won’t vote for Hillary should be discounted. At the election, the choice will not be Hillary or not Hillary — it will be Hillary or someone else. And that is what the campaign is about.

I admit it is very early in the nomination process, but Sen. Barack Obama’s and former Sen. John Edwards’ campaigns are beginning to look just strong enough to induce the Hillary campaign to continually sharpen its skills (rather than succumb to the instinct to coast or sit on a lead.) On the other hand, the candidacies of both Messrs. Obama and Edwards may have fairly low ceilings, while the Hillary campaign has a solidity that should be able to grind on remorselessly to nomination.

Mr. Obama’s campaign, at least to my eyes, seems more froth than substance. It was born of a ludicrously enthusiastic media launch. Without spending a penny, his candidacy was given — by the media — a plausible credibility that defied political reality. Lacking not only any relevant governmental experience, he also lacked any other professional experience (e.g. military, business) that the public has invariably looked to as alternative preparation for the presidency. At least since the Civil War, Mr. Obama would be the least experienced man elected to the presidency.

All he has are his personal attributes — which are of mixed political value.

Obviously he is attractive, intelligent, eloquent and charismatic. But America has yet to elect as president a black man, or a person who, in his youth was probably Muslim (according to Los Angeles Times) — which, unfair as it might be, will weigh on the minds of Americans given the unfolding world events of our time.

Nor is he champion for any deeply considered and held great issue of the day. His anti-Iraq war position is essentially perfunctory and — in the fullness of time — will be publicly indistinguishable from Hillary’s.

The extraordinary excitement in, and size of, his campaign crowds are over-represented by young people — who invariably are under-represented in the voting booths of both parties. He is a crowd-attracting curiosity — and a delightful one. But losing presidential campaigns throughout our history have often been marked by large, enthusiastic crowds.

His media-driven launch immediately captured much of the substantial anti-Hillary sentiment in the Democratic Party. But as the months have unfolded, he has not followed up his launch with continuing dramatic rises in his poll numbers or in equivalent fundraising performance — being badly beaten by Hillary’s fundraising in Hollywood, New York and generally.

And, as we are still almost a year from the first primary votes being cast, his freshness and uniqueness will have long faded by then. He might have been formidable in a lightning campaign of three or four months, but in a long ground war of attrition — bet on Hillary’s massive institutional strengths. Just one recent example is her purchase of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s support for the crucial Iowa caucuses. In one swoop, she has not only bought his endorsement, but the use of his formidable state machine — which is vital in the hand-to-hand combat of a caucus state.

She could buy that not only because she has the money — but because if a Democratic politician is looking for a place in the presumed next Democratic administration — the smart money is on Hillary. There will doubtless be more Vilsacks falling into her ample lap in the coming months. Every little bit helps in a war of attrition.

Hillary’s campaign is also blessed by the continuing effort of the Edwards campaign. She needed the Edwards campaign to split the anti-Hillary vote (and money). If he had dropped out after the sad news of his wife’s illness, Hillary would have had to face Mr. Obama one on one (effectively) — always a dangerous condition against an attractive adversary. But the persistence of the Edwards campaign muddies the campaign waters to Hillary’s advantage, but is almost certainly not capable of knocking out Mr. Obama’s campaign and taking Hillary on one-on-one. (Should Al Gore get in the race, his announcement day would be the high point of his campaign.)

Moreover, Hillary’s strengths are not yet as appreciated as they will be. Don’t get me wrong, personally I find her and her candidacy detestable as the worst form of unprincipled, ruthless, nihilistic, mud-throwing demagogic politics.

But, for the Democratic Party electorate (and some independents and soft Republicans) her apparent strengths will become more persuasive. Currently she suffers by the media’s focus on her lack of spontaneity, charm or pleasant voice — particularly when compared with Mr. Obama and, to some extent, Mr. Edwards.

But charm is not the only path to the American voter. Richard Milhous Nixon won more national elections than any politician in our history (two vice-presidents, three presidential nominations and two presidencies — three if you count the stolen 1960 election against Kennedy). He didn’t have any charm — but he was smart, shrewd, highly political, hardworking and ruthless.

Sometimes the voters are looking for what they think is competence rather than a love affair.

That is why I sometimes use the name Hillary Milhous Clinton for the junior Senator from New York. It is only partially meant to be negative. But it is meant to be a warning to my fellow Republicans. Beware. It will be up to the Republicans to protect the country from the increasing likelihood of a Hillary presidency.

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