Friday, October 18, 2013

Hillary Clinton, Welcome to the White House

In the innermost sanctum of Clintonland, it is difficult to imagine that Hillary and Bill, two of the savviest politicians in the country, are not pinching themselves to make sure that it's all real. Perhaps they're dancing a jig together, or knocking back shots and howling at the moon out of sheer, giddy joy at their good luck. (OK, Hillary's not howling, but Bill might be.) Or maybe they are just quietly kvelling over the latest turn of events.

Because the trend lines are unmistakable, and they're looking better all the time: If she wants to run in 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton could have the easiest walk into the White House of any candidate in either party since, well, one has to go back a very long way. Maybe to Reagan in '84. LBJ in '64, or Eisenhower in '52, or even FDR in 1932, 1936 and 1940. The presidency is looking like it's hers to lose, more than ever.

More from NJ: Hillary Clinton, Welcome to the White House

The reasons are becoming more obvious with each passing crisis of Republicanism, but are even starker now in the wake of the GOP's embarrassing implosion over the shutdown and debt-ceiling fight. This is an opposition party in such a state of extreme dysfunction that talk of a third-party split in 2016 is almost irrelevant. Why would you need a third-party split to win—as Bill did, recall, cheating George H.W. Bush out of a second term in 1992 thanks to the Ross Perot candidacy—when the base and establishment of the GOP are no longer on speaking terms?

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Remember when poor Mitt Romney, who even in the best of fettle was not a very smooth or relaxed guy, twisted himself into an unrecognizable pretzel to win over the base? When a man who'd been a fairly effective Massachusetts governor felt he had to disown his greatest achievement, universal health care, and virtually emasculate himself before the general election in order to triumph in the primaries, thus losing all credibility (or at least identity) by the fall? When Romney believed he had to out-Santorum Rick Santorum, the man once voted the second dumbest senator, and go even more conservative on immigration than not-ready-for-prime-time Rick "Oops" Perry?

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Well, guess what, it's only gotten worse for reasonable Republicans who might have a shot at winning a general election against a popular Democratic nominee. Whatever rational, impressive candidate lays claim to the GOP nomination in 2016 -- say, the popular, newly trimmed-down but currently-all-too-moderate New Jersey governor, Chris Christie -- is now going to have to out-Cruz Ted Cruz. And that's just not possible. Finding a place to the right of Ted Cruz, as brazen a demagogue who has come along in American politics since Huey Long, is like reaching the edge of the Internet and then trying to go beyond. You can't do it. Nor would you want to try. Nor could you ever win a general election doing so.

Hillary, meanwhile, can cruise to the Democratic nomination. She is head and shoulders above any possible challenger, the polls consistently show. Yes, OK, we all said that before the 2008 campaign too, when suddenly a phenom named Barack Obama came along. But let's be real: The Obama candidacy was like a perfect storm, a hundred-year event, a freakish thing. Martin O'Malley is never going to be mistaken for a phenom. Nor is Andrew Cuomo. Joe Biden? Democrats love him, but he can't touch her either. And you can be sure the Clintons are not going to make the same mistakes they did in 2008, bypassing the smaller Democratic caucus states because they underestimated the Obama insurgency.

The demographic numbers tell a grim tale for any potential GOP candidate at the same time as they look like manna from electoral heaven for Hillary. The Republican Party, still in the grip of tea-party extremism, is more and more becoming the party of disaffected and aging white voters. Even many Republican strategists are conceding that no GOP presidential nominee can win that way. But the party is not building itself a bigger tent fast enough: Strapped down by House extremists who can't think beyond the demands of their scarlet-red districts, or beyond the next two years, the GOP is not likely to embrace immigration reform despite Marco Rubio's efforts, thus continuing to alienate the burgeoning Hispanic vote that so doomed Romney. As my colleague Ron Brownstein wrote recently: "Absent big GOP gains with minorities, [Clinton] could win, even comfortably, just by maintaining Obama's showing with whites … [But] the first 2016 polling instead has generally shown her trimming Obama's deficit among whites both nationally and in key states."

GOP strategists will say they're changing the rules, cutting the number of primary debates so the next Republican nominee is not subjected to the same "traveling circus" (as national chairman Reince Priebus called it) that Romney was. But that's not going to change the tenor of those debates, in which the candidates will have to outflank each other on the right. They also say, well, you'll see, the tea party movement is fading, or at least becoming more manageable. But it's not, as we saw when 144 Republicans in the House voted against the reopening of the government and extension of the debt ceiling Wednesday night, costing John Boehner the support of most of what used to be known as "his" caucus. More to the point, several of those who might be considered serious GOP 2016 contenders for the presidency also voted in favor of the first default in American history in order to stay in the tea party's good graces, including Paul Ryan, Cruz, Rubio and Rand Paul (supplying the first fodder for those Hillary 2016 attack ads). We'll no doubt see a resumption of GOP extremism in coming months when the two parties battle over spending cuts leading up to the next debt-ceiling deadline on Feb. 7. The tea party is still dictating terms to the GOP establishment, and those terms are just too conservative for the general electorate. And who is now the point man for the GOP in budget negotiations? Ryan.

Yes, Hillary has some vulnerabilities. There are still plenty of Clinton haters out there. John Kerry appears to be eclipsing her record as secretary of State already, and then there's Benghazi, which the Republicans will resurrect gleefully if she runs. But in truth the mistakes of Benghazi, which branded Clinton as the first secretary of State to lose an ambassador in the field since 1979, are not going to stand up to scrutiny. It's wild conspiracy theory, utterly unproven (in fact it's been disproven), to say that Clinton covered up what was known about the Benghazi attack. It won't work in 2016.

So, if she wants it, the broad center of American politics – and the White House—may well be Hillary Clinton's for the taking. We await her decision. But she and Bill must be feeling pretty good about it now. Maybe even a bit giddy.

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