- - Friday, July 18, 2014

Hillary Clinton isn’t likely ever to become president of the United States. In fact, there is a greater possibility than is generally recognized by the Washington cognoscenti that she won’t even run. If she does, though, the barriers she faces will prove overwhelming. Her 2008 campaign was her last good shot for the office, and she failed. Since then, numerous developments have conspired steadily to diminish her prospects. Those prospects are now near zero.

This analytical framework holds absolutely no credulity in Washington, where thinking rarely extends beyond the conventional. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that Mrs. Clinton’s nomination is nearly inevitable and her subsequent election highly likely. It’s true that she is smart, tested, universally known, a whiz at fundraising and generally respected. The long-ago scandals that got her labeled by one prominent columnist as a “congenital liar” have long since receded into the netherworld of the national consciousness. On paper, she looks nearly unbeatable.

Presidential elections don’t take place on paper, though. They take place in the real world, where politics is always about the future. Mrs. Clinton is a product of the past.

The country is at an inflection point brought on by its crisis of political deadlock. It desperately needs a new brand of politics that can break the deadlock and set it upon a new course toward its future and destiny. In such times, a gap normally opens up between the political establishment, guided by the lessons of the past, and the electorate, always ahead of the establishment in pushing for new political paradigms, new dialectical thinking and new coalitions. In the campaign year of 2016, the voters, angry and anxious, appear poised to grab power away from the establishment and invest it in candidates of the future.

If so, Mrs. Clinton isn’t going to be able to withstand these winds of change. Her recent autobiography betrays a politician seemingly devoid of fresh thinking or even a recognition of what kind of political message is required by the temper of our times. In some eras of our political past, this wouldn’t have been a handicap. In today’s political climate, it is likely to be fatal.

There is a question that always comes up at this point in any discussion of a candidate’s nomination-battle weakness — namely, well, who can defeat her? Think back just about exactly eight years, when the same sense of inevitability was attached to the same candidate by the same political commentators and observers. Their weapon of choice: the polls. In January 2007, Real Clear Politics commingled a number of polls to arrive at a reading suggesting Mrs. Clinton was ahead of her nearest rival, Barack Obama, by 38 percent to 18 percent. Ten months later, the gap was 49 percent to 20 percent. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in October 2007 pegged Mrs. Clinton at 53 percent, compared with Mr. Obama’s 30 percent. The poll officials said she was up 12 points in three weeks, while he was down 7 points.

Of course, we all know what happened. The new man on the political scene, Mr. Obama, obliterated those early poll numbers and overwhelmed her in the nomination fight.

Thus, it’s clear the early polls are worthless to anyone seeking to assess any candidate’s prospects. So what should we look to? The generic political situation, in which the country needs and desires fresh thinking and a way out of the current deadlock. Mr. Clinton can’t offer either.

If, however, she prevails in the primaries, she faces another major barrier in the general election — the deteriorating political performance of Mr. Obama’s second term. Though many political scientists don’t buy the idea, history tells us that presidential elections are largely referendums on the four-year performance of the incumbent or incumbent party. Mr. Obama was elected largely because of the perceived failures of George W. Bush in his second term. Ronald Reagan was elected because of Jimmy Carter’s abysmal record.

There may be time for Mr. Obama to turn around his faltering second-term performance, but time is running out. We see the administration struggling, sometimes almost hopelessly, with the kinds of problems that spell real trouble for any incumbent or incumbent party. These include a lack of initiative on the domestic front, serious setbacks in foreign affairs, a lack of any major foreign-policy triumphs, the gathering Internal Revenue Service scandal, long-term stagnation in real per-capita economic growth, a likely decline in congressional standing for Democrats, and growing civic unrest attending the illegal influx of foreign children into the United States.

All this spells trouble for any candidate facing the American people in 2016 under the Democratic banner. Some people think that Mrs. Clinton’s name recognition, political stature, longevity on the national scene and past record can trump any difficulties stemming from the Obama performance. History suggests this isn’t likely.

And so it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that for 2016, Hillary’s handicaps are insurmountable. She is the wrong person in what is likely to be a transitional political year that, in any event, isn’t likely to be particularly hospitable to Democratic presidential candidates. That is why there is a greater likelihood than is generally recognized that she will vacate the field before the battle begins.

Robert W. Merry, political editor of The National Interest, is the author of “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians” (Simon & Schuster, 2012).

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