January 20, 2006
Hillary's "Plantation" and 2008

By John McIntyre

Senator Clinton’s Martin Luther King Day speech was perhaps the first gaffe in the 2008 presidential race. While it would be silly to characterize this mistake as a huge issue that is going to derail her candidacy, it does provide an opportunity to take a look at Hillary’s candidacy and her chances for the Democratic nomination and the Presidency.

For those unaware of Hillary’s “plantation” remark, this is what she said at Al Sharpton’s event to a predominantly black audience in Harlem:

When you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run, it has been run like a plantation and you know what I'm talking about…..

There are several offensive angles to her accusation, and the words don’t do justice to the malevolent tone with which she attacked her political enemies. First, it marginalizes the evil and suffering of slavery by comparing it to the Democrats’ minority status in the House of Representatives, and second, it is the type of crude racial politics that is unbecoming and increasingly less effective for Democrats. Politically, where it hurts Hillary the most, is it immediately reminds people of the liberal, attacking image she had at the beginning of her husband's Presidency. The humiliation of the Lewinsky scandal tempered this impression in her 2000 Senate race, but it is not the image Hillary wants on display as she sets out to run a national campaign.

Since winning her Senate seat, Clinton has done exactly the sort of things she should be doing to lay the groundwork for a 2008 run. Getting a seat on the Armed Services Committee was the right move, as has been her hawkish position (at least for a Democrat) on Iraq. The Clintons fully realize Democrats have a profound weakness on national security issues - something that will only be complicated by the fact she will be the first woman running on a major ticket for the job of Commander in Chief. And recognizing she already has 100% national name ID, she has attended to local New York state issues and worked hard to take her duties as a Senator seriously - smart moves. While the overtures to moderate her position on abortion and the photo ops with Newt Gingrich are blatant moves to the center, and recognized as such by the political punditocracy, the public only gets glimpses of these stories, and I think in general she has had success in moving to the center over the last four years.

Which is why Monday’s gaffe could be particularly damaging. It showed the nasty, very partisan side of Senator Clinton, and it raises the question of whether Hillary will ever be able to outrun the first impression she formed with the American public in the early ’90’s. The issue isn’t that huge numbers of the public are paying close attention to this particular story, but rather what sort of judgments the political elite in the Democratic Party may draw from the Hillary “plantation” dust-up.

For all of Bill Clinton's personal faults, he was undoubtedly one of the best natural politicians the country has ever seen. Hillary, to put it kindly, is not. She is unable to get a partisan crowd revved up without stooping to nasty attacks that invariably get her in trouble and reinforce the sort of liberal stereotype that could be fatal in a general election.

Given Clinton’s shrewd positioning in Bush’s first term and the President’s woes in 2005, I had begun to think she was a lock for the nomination and looked like a winner in the general election against anybody but McCain or Giuliani (A narrow winner, mind you, but a winner nonetheless). But this week has made me rethink some of those assumptions. In many ways the gaffe and the conservative counterattack that followed is a pre-season example of what we will see over and over in the 2008 campaign - just on a much larger and more intense scale.

Larry Sabato is correct when he says: Democrats ignore Clinton’s image as “’cold,’ ‘devious,’ and ‘harsh’…… at their considerable peril.” If there is anything we can be sure of about 2008 it will be that after eight years of George W. Bush, if the Democrats are going to agree on anything, it is they want to win. You wonder how many in the Democratic hierarchy are starting to reconsider whether Hillary has to be the automatic nominee.

Mark Warner, while perhaps more conservative than most Democrats prefer, may be looking better and better to party regulars. The reality is Hillary has no chance of winning any southern state, so she is basically running a redux of the Kerry campaign with the race coming down to the state of Ohio, or the trifecta of Nevada, Iowa and New Mexico. Either way, it’s hard to make a case she is a stronger candidate to win those states than Mark Warner. Democrats are painfully aware that the only victories they have had since the Vietnam/Watergate days are with southern Governors as their nominee.

Mark Warner isn’t Hillary’s only problem, either. Whether it is Gore, Feingold or Dean, a candidate will emerge on the left to satisfy the rage among the hardcore base against Iraq and everything that is George Bush. Whoever this candidate ends up being - and right now I’d say Gore is the favorite – they are going to commit to polices and say things that Senator Clinton won’t be able to say if she wants to emerge from the primaries with any hope of winning the general election. These two threats, one on the left and one the right, are going to make Hillary’s general election strategy for 2006 and 2007 considerably more complicated.

Also, people should not forget that when Bill Clinton won in 1992, the end of the Cold War and Ross Perot’s 19% were two not-so-insignificant factors. Post 9/11 and without a credible third party candidate disproportionately siphoning away Republican votes, this week’s events have made me reevaluate Hillary’s odds for both the nomination and her ability to win a general election. The more we see of Monday’s Hillary Clinton, the more I return to the analysis that her chances of winning in a general election are low (without a significant third party candidate) simply because she probably starts with 40% of the voting public saying ‘NO.’

Monday’s “plantation” crack may foreshadow the difficulty Hillary will have in getting beyond her original image with the American people as an unapologetic liberal. And it is this baggage, along with all the other Clinton skeletons, that may subtly work to move pieces of the Democratic nominating apparatus to begin to open up to the possibility that maybe they have a better alternative.

In other words, below the surface, Monday may have been a bigger day than people think.

John McIntyre is the co-founder and Managing Editor of RealClearPolitics.

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