These are not happy times for Hillary Clinton. Nor Bubba, either. They got a wake-up call Tuesday that was less a call than a fire bell in the night. Neither has slept a wink since.
The fire bell is not about Hillary’s fragile health or even, at the moment, about what she did — and more important, didn’t do — as secretary of state. It’s far more serious than that.
The Clinton mojo isn’t working. This is two in a row on the losing end of selected congressional races. Bubba still has the impish smile, the ingratiating cock of the head, the schoolmaster’s bony index finger stabbing the air to punctuate his talking points, the calculating eyes that sent some women into a swoon and other women looking for a place to hide. None of that was working on this election night.
The disappointment in Pennsylvania follows the Democratic debacle in Florida, where a Republican lobbyist from Washington defeated a Democratic golden girl, who two years earlier had come within a whisker of being elected governor. She collected millions for her congressional race, and her opponent collected thousands. Bubba raced in with robo-calls just in time to crack open the champagne. Only the champagne turned out to be beer, and it was flat.
Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, which includes Philadelphia suburbs, seemed ready-made for swooning at the feet of Bubba and the lady. Swooning at the sight of a Democrat is what the district’s voters regularly do on cue, and Marjorie Margolies, a liberal’s liberal, was attempting a comeback 20 years after she was bounced out of the seat. Name recognition was out of sight, and she led in the early polls by a ton-and-a-half.
Enter Bubba and Hillary, with television commercials urging Pennsylvanians to do the right thing and send Mrs. Margolies back to Washington. Bubba made robo-calls with the usual boilerplate blah-blah, reprised from the Florida failure, about the need to send someone to Washington who would dutifully eat her organic vegetables, do good and work “across the aisle.” Voters heard the familiar good-ol’-boy accent in their very own telephones.
Brendan Boyle, a 37-year-old representative in the Pennsylvania legislature — not even a state senator — was hopelessly outclassed. The Clintons moved in to take credit for the kill. Hillary even held a fundraiser for Mrs. Margolies, not in Pennsylvania, but in Manhattan. Bubba and the lady with the lamp (and a good aim) had moved uptown.
There was even a heartwarming element of family values at play. Mrs. Margolies is Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law. Mothers-in-law are not always popular anywhere, but the mother-in-law vote is important everywhere, because nearly everybody has one. Bubba owed this mother-in-law big time. She cast the crucial vote to pass his first budget in 1993, the one that established him as the usual big-time Democratic spender. She paid for it, big time. She was promptly voted out of office.
Mrs. Margolies, no doubt heeding advice from the Clintons, cast herself as a Hillary clone, a foreshadowing of good things to come. She even came to sound like Hillary, talking about the importance of electing more women to Congress, of her post-political career working for an organization called Women’s Campaign International, and there was soft talk about the ineffable sadness of the burden of being a front-runner.
Her campaign became a remembrance of things past, a test of the appeal of nostalgia for the Clinton White House and whether old times there are not forgotten. One television commercial featured film not of Mrs. Margolies but of Bubba’s rally touting her. The Pennsylvania voters were learning anew that everything is about the Clintons, every time and all the time. The campaign was a coming attraction of an epic to come to a theater near you.
But the thrill was gone. Mr. Boyle did not merely defeat her, but destroyed her, winning by 14 points. Bubba and Hillary couldn’t even make it close. After a brief concession speech, Mrs. Margolies turned to her pollster and whispered sadly, “It’s a shock.”
Indeed it was. This was not a general election, with thousands of hostile Republicans passing judgment on a Democratic candidate, but Democrats passing judgment on their most popular Democrat alive. It was a warning that nostalgia, which can be fun, nevertheless has its limits. It might even have been a warning that voters beyond the Pennsylvania 12th Congressional District are “thinking about tomorrow,” and tomorrow might not include a Clinton.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.