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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Can Hillary Win?

The latest issue of The Washington Monthly features twinned articles by Amy Sullivan and Carl M. Cannon on the favorite perennial topic of political junkies everywhere: is Sen. Hillary Clinton a potential general election winner in 2008? Cannon says “yes,” and Amy says, “maybe not.”My friend Amy is by no stretch of the imagination a Hillary-basher; it’s clear she thinks Clinton would be a fine president, but that the public’s fixed opinions of Hillary, and the high negatives she would take into a tough general election, might be perilously difficult to overcome. Cannon responds by comparing Clinton to Ronald Reagan, another politician who was thought to be too ideological, and carry too much baggage, to turn any new heads in the electorate.I agree with Carl’s conclusion, if not with all his talking points, but his crucial argument is this one:

She has paid her dues to the Democratic Party, and she doesn’t have to prove her bona fides to anyone. From now on, she only need emulate Reagan, a fellow Illinois native, who campaigned with positive rhetoric and a smile on his face, trusting that the work he’d done cultivating his base would pay off, and that he needed mainly to reassure independent-minded voters.

That’s true, but Hillary’s positioning is even better than Reagan’s. After all, Ronald Reagan wasn’t a key figure in an earlier, more moderate Republican administration. In other words, Sen. Clinton has a unique strategic flexibility at a time when other potential Democratic candidates are going to have to spend a lot of time establishing their street cred with different elements of the party, including those who are deeply suspicious of anything that looks or sounds like “centrism,” and those who fear Democrats may be lurching too far to the Left. And that’s also why she has another asset that neither Sullivan nor Cannon really talked about: her ability to unify the Democratic Party. Sure, there are some moderate Democrats who still think of her as the left axis in her husband’s administration, and some folks on the Left who never liked Bill, or who can’t forgive Hillary for supporting the Iraq War Resolution. But they are a small minority when it comes to rank-and-file Democratic voters.Moreover, the fixed opinions of Clinton that Amy writes about create opportunities as well as obstacles. Republicans have invested so much time, money and noise in stereotyping Democrats that the image of the party as a whole, both good and bad, is converging with Hillary’s image. That makes her unusually capable of challenging those stereotypes, and of surprising voters, and making them think–something her husband did to great advantage.To be clear about it, I’m not endorsing Sen. Clinton for president in 2008, and I’m among those who doubt she’s made up her mind to run in the first place. I like a lot of other potential candidates, especially my Governor, Mark Warner, but also the man who should be president today, John Kerry, along with Bayh, Biden, Richardson, and Schweitzer. But early as it is, nobody’s allowed to not have an opinion of a potential Hillary Clinton candidacy, and so mark me down as one Democrat who looks at that possibility with much more hope than trepidation.

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