Is Hillary Clinton washed up?

Robert Merry is a veteran Washington journalist. John and I had lunch with him once when he was in charge of Congressional Quarterly. It was a pleasant encounter, though he seemed disappointed and perhaps a little bit put off by our support for the war in Iraq.

Merry is also a historian and a scholar of the presidency. He wrote a rather good biography of James Polk and a flawed but worthwhile attempt to rate America’s presidents.

Accordingly, Merry’s assessment that “Hillary Clinton isn’t likely ever to become president of the United States” is worthy of our attention.

Actually, Merry views Clinton’s prospects as dimmer than his introductory sentence suggests. He continues:

[T]here is a greater possibility than is generally recognized by the Washington cognoscenti that [Clinton] 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.

Merry’s premise is that “politics is always about the future.” This reality, he says, all but dooms Hillary Clinton because she “is a product of the past.”

I dispute the view that politics is always about the future. The past can hold great sway over presidential elections, as it did for many years after 1864 and 1932, for example.

In fact, Merry seems to acknowledge that the importance of the past in presidential politics fluctuates, and he eventually settles on the more modest — and I think correct — claim that the past will count for little more than the nightmarish backdrop for the 2016 election:

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’s considerable insight here, I think.

In 2016, the U.S. will have endured 16 consecutive years of what Americans consider, rightly or wrongly, failed presidencies. This may well be enough to create an “inflection point,” to borrow Merry’s phrase. Twelve years of failed presidencies — from 1965 through 1976 — were enough to produce Jimmy Carter. The added four years of his failed presidency were enough to produce Ronald Reagan.

Moreover, eight years of Bill Clinton’s flawed presidency coupled with eight years of what most considered the failed presidency of George W. Bush produced Barack Obama.

The point? Years of perceived presidential failure and/or excessive drama tend to cause the electorate to think outside the box in selecting a new president. We tend to elect inside the box type presidents — Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush — when the system is viewed as having generated less failure.

One can’t conceive of a more inside the box presidential candidate than Hillary Clinton. This reality, coupled with the closely related fact that she is so connected to the past, will likely pose a major challenge if she seeks the presidency.

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