Why Hillary is no shoo-in

According to Chris Cillizza, “there’s a strain of thought in politics these days — prominent among Democrats but shared by even some Republicans — that it’s going to be very hard to beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.” Cillizza is right — this strain exists. Based on my conversations with Republicans, I’d even say Cillizza probably underestimates the extent of GOP pessimism, at least here in Washington.

But Cillizza sees Clinton as a less formidable candidate than the conventional wisdom would have it. Again, I think he’s right.

Cillizza cites poll results that should be keeping Clinton’s team up at night. This week, Quinnipiac University asked voters in Iowa, Colorado and Virginia this question: “Would you like to see the next President generally; continue with Barack Obama’s policies or change direction from Barack Obama’s policies.” Just 34 percent of Iowans and Coloradans said they want the next president to move forward on Obama policies, and just 31 percent of Virginians said so.

Clinton can, of course, tell voters that she’s her own person, and therefore that she will not persevere with Obama’s policies across-the-board. But doing so would create difficulties. As Cillizza says:

[T]oo much distancing from Obama’s policies too soon could lead to a rebellion among liberals who remain very committed to Obama and his agenda and already aren’t in love with Clinton. With every day that passes and Elizabeth Warren makes no move toward running. . .that concern lessens a bit for Clinton. But, even without a Warren-like figure in the race, beating back discontent from liberals isn’t exactly how Clinton and her team want to spend the next six months.

Presumably, Clinton will wait until the nomination is clearly hers to begin the “distancing” process. But even then, creating distance will dampen the enthusiasm of the Democratic base for Clinton.

Moreover, it’s doubtful that attempts by Clinton to distance herself from Obama will be persuasive to voters who are unhappy with the administration. Cillizza points out that “her time as Secretary of State — no matter her relatively subtle attempts to distance herself from his decision in, say, Syria — make[s] it virtually impossible for Clinton to totally beat back the attack that voting for her represents a third term for Obama.”

Al Gore’s presidential run in instructive. Cillizza reminds us that “Gore never could get comfortable talking about the Clinton years, and lost.”

Bill Clinton’s presidency was well-regarded by most voters. If Gore struggled to overcome the electorate’s case of Clinton fatigue, imagine how difficult it might well be for Hillary — like Gore, a mediocre campaigner — to overcome Obama fatigue.

It’s possible that by November 2016, the electorate will hold Obama in higher esteem than it does now. The economy may continue its uptick, and the country may evade new major foreign policy setbacks and terrorist attacks. (Then again, things may get worse on one or more of these fronts.)

But it’s difficult to imagine Obama approaching the level of popularity Bill Clinton enjoyed 16 years ago. Thus, it’s difficult to view Hillary Clinton as anything like a shoo-in for the presidency, provided that the GOP nominates a reasonably strong candidate.

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