now infamous Martin Luther King Day comparison of Congress to
a plantation has resuscitated many centrist Democrats' concern
that their early front runner for 2008 may not be made of the
same stuff as her husband.
was christened "The Natural" by Time magazine's
Joe Klein in a biography of the same name. He was a political
thoroughbred, energetic and brilliant if undisciplined, possessing
intuitive emotional intelligence. He was always able to connect
with his audience, sometimes against their own better judgment.
Clinton left office with a 60% job approval rating even after
his post-Monica impeachment.
It's a cliche to say
that opposites attract and that politics makes strange bedfellows.
But in the case of the Clintons, both may be true, because if
Bill Clinton is The Natural, Hillary Clinton is The Professional.
Once a Goldwater girl
from the Chicago suburbs, Hillary is the prototypical good student
- undeniably successful and highly disciplined, but with a clinical
as opposed to emotional intelligence. Her studious attempts at
centering her image in the Senate - by endorsing a Bush-lite position
on the war in Iraq and sponsoring a bill to outlaw flag burning
- have not convinced voters to reassess their fundamental perception
of her as a liberal who is smart and hard-working but opportunistic;
an expert in strategy but not empathy.
Bill Clinton loved
the minutia of campaigning; even keeping a collection of campaign
buttons near his desk in the Oval Office. He seemed to gain energy
from the crowds, once explaining that what he loved about running
for office was that "you get to hear about another life story.
It's like being able to peel another layer off an unlimited onion
But while her husband
seemed to gain energy from a rope line, Hillary Clinton seems
to regard it as a necessary indignity on the way to wielding power
and influence. Even while she intensely focuses on the person
at hand, you get the sense she's looking forward to washing with
Purell. She feels purposeful about helping "people"
in the abstract, but seems uncomfortable with the inherent messiness
The essence of her
husband's political success was his ability to reach out beyond
his party's base, re-connecting with moderates and the middle
class. Bill Clinton understood that no Democratic candidate for
president except FDR and Lyndon Johnson had received more than
51% of the vote in the past 100 years. To overcome that deficit,
successful Democrats depend on winning over moderate Republicans
and independents. He received crucial support in 1992 from Republicans
for Clinton-Gore clubs which sprang up in swing states such as
New Jersey. It is almost impossible to image Republicans for Hillary
clubs emerging on anything other than campaign stationary.
Hillary Clinton is
a polarizing figure even within the Democratic Party. She is instinctively
- and perhaps irrationally - opposed by moderate Republicans and
Independents. The problem is not political, it is personal. Her
Senate voting record might reflect all the right moves, but as
her comments on Martin Luther King Day indicate, she is not above
pandering by playing the race card, confirming many Americans'
worst concerns about the left wing of the Democratic Party.
In an attempt to stop
the cash-driven coronation, increasingly nervous centrist Democrats
are taking a look at a new crop of genuine New Democrats more
in the mold of Hillary Clinton's husband than herself. Chief among
these at the moment is a former governor of Virginia, Mark Warner,
a successful entrepreneur who received astronomical approval ratings
running a red state as a New Democrat. Perhaps most impressively,
he was succeeded by his lieutenant governor this past fall. If
Republicans lose Virginia's 13 electoral votes in 2008, they would
be extremely difficult to make up elsewhere on the map.
Senator Evan Bayh
of Indiana has been charged by some critics as being charisma
deficient, but as chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership
Council and popular former governor, he appears to be a classic
red state family man, precisely the kind of figure his party has
lost in the recent past.
There is also Governor
Bill Richardson, of New Mexico a former congressman and United
Nations ambassador. Mr. Richardson may be able to help Democrats
break through in the southwest, while also reclaiming the significant
incursions into the Hispanic vote made by George W. Bush.
So far, Hillary
appears to be hurtling toward an easy re-election to the Senate
this year, but a new poll by Diageo/Hotline
released on January 20 confirms many of her weaknesses as
a presidential candidate. It showed Senator McCain beating her
in a head-to-head match up by 52% to 36% - an electoral landslide
along the lines of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The strength of that
match up stems directly from Mr. McCain's credentials as a leading
centrist Republican with ability to appeal to centrist Democrats
and Independents as well as Republicans.
Republicans grow over-confident, a little noticed statistic buried
in the same poll showed Hillary Clinton narrowly defeating a generic
Republican in a head-to-head race. What this means is that she
can beat an uncharismatic social conservative. That should be
a wake up call to those who buy wholeheartedly into the play-to-the-base
is a consummate political professional and cannot be counted out
in 2008. But the differences between The Natural and The Professional
in the presidency would be even more pronounced. With Hillary
Clinton in the White House, the biggest problem might not be policy
but deeper political polarization - and that is what our country
can least afford.
Avlon is a columnist for the New
York Sun and the author