Tricky Hillary: Don’t Underestimate Her

My Hillary versus Nixon comparison yesterday prompted a couple of commenters to protest that such comparison is deeply unfair . . . to Nixon.  Quite correct.  But leaving aside Nixon’s much greater substantive depth and capacities, it is worth running with the superficial comparisons for a while, because they should not be ignored.  Above all, it would be a mistake to underestimate Hillary’s chances.

Hillary is a dreadful candidate—but that’s what a lot of conservatives and Republicans said about Nixon in the mid-1960s.  One of the reasons rookie Governor Ronald Reagan considered a run for president before his chair was barely warm in Sacramento in 1967 was the expectation that Nixon would surely lose again, and especially so if he was running against Bobby Kennedy (sort of like a Clinton running against a Bush next year).

No one was more keenly aware of his baggage and limitations as a popular figure than Nixon, which is why we got the self-conscious “New Nixon” in the 1968 campaign.  And one of the things it featured was lots of small, unscripted events with Nixon interacting with real citizens for up to an hour at a time.  One of his campaign media strategists—a young producer recruited from the Mike Douglas show named Roger Ailes (where have I head that name before?)—taped these sessions, and edited them down into highly effective TV spots that “humanized” Nixon in a way set piece speeches, traditional campaign rallies, and other typical studio TV spots probably couldn’t have done.

So there is this telling detail in today’s Wall Street Journal account of Hillary’s announcement:

In another strategic move drawn from her unsuccessful experience eight years ago, advisers say she will give fewer speeches to large crowds and spend more time mingling with small groups of voters in intimate settings such as homes and coffee shops. Fewer campaign staff will join her on trips, paring down the entourage that for some voters made her seem a distant figure.

So get ready for the “New Hillary.”  I have my doubts it will work.

Second, John Podhoretz brings up the significant fact that Hillary’s campaign may well raise and spend $2.5 billion.  No wonder no other ambitious Democrats are willing to make the race.  This should, and probably will, hurt her; I expect even a lot of Democrats, and especially independents, won’t like a self-entitled candidate essentially coronated with the bludgeon of a two-point-five-billion dollar campaign warchest.

But Hillary won’t be running a generic Republican; she’ll be running against a real person, and like Nixon she doesn’t need to be popular to win.  She only needs to be more acceptable to voters than the GOP nominee.  Podhoretz warns:

[I]t would be disastrous for the Republican party if the nominating process goes on too long, or if an obvious nominee emerges and must still campaign through the end of March or into April because there’s a gadfly staying in. Hillary running unopposed with a virtually limitless supply of money will mean she can start going negative and defining one or more of her Republican opponents almost from the jump in 2016.

If the primary process drains the eventual candidate of money so that he must somehow make it through three months until the convention, effectively penniless—which is what happened to Mitt Romney in 2012—that could be especially problematic. Obama super PACs spent $100 million going after Romney in Ohio on the issue of job-destruction by his Bain Capital, and that money was extremely well-spent in part because it went unanswered.

There are other reasons to think Hillary won’t be a walkover.  A Facebook pal points out:

Re: Mme. Clinton’s candidacy. Two things about third-term elections:(1) the incumbent’s party usually loses BUT (2) the races are notoriously close nail-biters. Think 1960, 1968, 1976, and 2000. And as for the exceptions, 1988 and 2008–remember that the candidate that lost by 6-7 points was at some important point in the campaign ahead in the polls (Dukakis in July-August and McCain for a few weeks in September). Barring very robust growth (1983-1988) or another sharp recession (2008), expect a nailbiter again.

The GOP should approach the 2016 race not as the favorite to win, but with the attitude that it needs to bring its A-Plus game.