observations and opinion
Watching Hillary Clinton run for President, you are sometimes puzzled: what the heck is she doing? How can she get elected running against the populist left of her own party? Did she really say “Henry Kissinger is a friend of mine” in the last debate? Did she really defend the status quo in health care, where 29 million people still languish uninsured, mouthing empty platitudes about “fighting” to make things better?
But then suddenly, it becomes clear. Fifty two years ago, 16 year old Hillary Clinton was a “Goldwater Girl” – a chipper high-schooler campaigning for the most vocally hardcore, right wing Republican of his Age, the Senator from Arizona Barry Goldwater. That Fall, Goldwater led the Republican ticket to a horrendous drubbing at the hands of Democratic President, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Some of today’s Stupider Left criticize her for being on the wrong side of the 1964 election (as if anyone should be permanently stained by their 16 year old politics) but that’s not why Goldwater matters in 2016. The flinty Arizonan isn’t who Hillary has become, it’s who she’s running against.
She’s running as LBJ.
Lyndon Johnson, elevated to the Presidency by the murder of JFK, was not a nationally beloved or even widely liked figure. He was a sometimes sour, domineering personality with a huge, fragile ego, a questionable personal life and history, and a grasping ache for power and importance. He was a uniquely gifted legislator, the “Master of the Senate” who through intimidation, bribery and sheer force of will, pushed the Congress to do what he wanted. After 1964 he cajoled Congress to enact an awesome set of reformist laws in the 1960s (Medicare, Civil Rights, Voting Rights, the War on Poverty). LBJ also raised taxes to help the poor and also, to pour money into the green swamps of Vietnam.
In 1964, LBJ floated on the wave of grief after the Kennedy assassination, building up towards his bid for election in November. The Democratic nomination was never at risk – he was the President. But within the party and across the land, Lyndon Johnson was not widely loved: he was respected. LBJ had unmatched credentials, knowledge and obvious talents too – he was a strong candidate, and the likely winner of the November vote. The Republicans made it a certainty, when the energized right of the party seized the day and handed Goldwater the nomination.
Barry Goldwater’s flaming rhetoric, hard line ideas, grim predictions of a liberal dissolution of American traditions and general tin-earedness, made him the scariest damned candidate for President ever. The prospect of the ramrod straight, square jawed, crew cut ideologue with his finger on the nuclear trigger, frightened the behoozits out of most people. Hence the effectiveness – and immortality – of a single TV commercial (known now as “the Daisy ad”) which, without even mentioning Goldwater, destroyed the Republican candidate by showing a mushroom cloud.
Move forward five decades to the current electoral season and we find Hillary Clinton, uncannily situated like her 1960s predecessor. She’s obviously brilliant. She knows more than anyone. She was an effective Senator and Secretary of State. Hillary has been close to the keys of the Oval Office (by marriage and appointment) but has never won them in her own right. She hungers for it, indeed, appears to feel entitled to it.
But to quote Barrack Obama, Hillary is only “likeable enough” meaning, she’s not really likeable. You admire her, you respect her, you may revile her – but you don’t warm to her. Someone very smart that I know recently compared her to Nixon, psychologically, and that may be true – Hillary seems a little paranoid. But her circumstances line up better, in my view, with that of LBJ in 1964.
So too, her strategy. Going into the nomination race almost no-one in America thought that Hillary could lose, and almost no-one in America was willing to run against her. Three stepped up: the weird Lincoln Chafee, the striving but dull Martin O’Malley (running for Veep, really) and a socialist from Vermont. The old guy, Bernie someone. Sanders. Basically, two no-hopers and a wild-eyed ideologue, no-hoper.
In such a group, Hillary’s job was to be polite, to quietly reassure folks of her supreme competence, and to wait. That worked well to wait out Chafee and O’Malley. With Bernie, it has been a little bumpier. Sanders excites the legitimate feeling and spirit of disaffected, worried people – his rhetoric is authentic because it is strong, he believes what he says, and he’s not entirely wrong. He has turned out to be more a white-haired Jewish Obama than anyone predicted (who would predict a white-haired Jewish Obama?)
Hillary’s job is to make him look more like someone else. Senator Sanders is as extreme-sounding and alien to the present-day populace as Barry Goldwater was in 1964. And if he doesn’t scare you yet, Hillary and her surrogates will do their utmost in the next few months to make sure he does. Hillary will play the trusted, and electable, pair of hands. It is a fair argument too: Sanders may make progressives’ loins tingle with excitement, but he causes shrinkage among the non-militant majority.
Goldwater’s slogan in 1964 was, “In your heart, you know he’s right.” Truer words were never spoken of Bernie Sanders, but the truth is an unwelcome visitor to many minds. Clinton knows it and is already playing it hard. And it will almost certainly work in the Democratic primaries of 2016, as it did for LBJ in the general election of 1964.
That being true, we can expect Secretary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee for President come summer. At which time she will face off against – who? This is where luck may really be turning her way. As predictably as Hillary will LBJ her way through the primary season, the Republicans are shaping up to let her do the same until November.
Amazingly, the GOP race is currently dominated by the most foul-mouthed, megalomaniacal brute ever to totter onto the American Presidential landscape. Donald Trump has a ridiculous personal past, questionable history in business, no evident ideology beyond bombastic sloganeering and a moral compass that points at himself. By latching onto the real fears of the working class, the millionaire tycoon attracts a plurality of Republican primary voters. Unless he is somehow stopped, Trump could pile up enough delegates to take the nomination.
Should that occur, Hillary Clinton will find herself precisely where she is today: as America’s most allegedly competent, if uninspiring option. Having dispatched the earnest ideologue Bernie Sanders, she will face off against the insincere demagogue Donald Trump. Her job will then to be quiet, determined, serious and adult. Let Donald be Donald, and Hillary will be President.
Even if the GOP finally dumps Trump, their remaining options aren’t really much better: Ted Cruz, who is perhaps the most hideous, creepy charlatan to crawl out of the bog since Joe McCarthy (or Nixon). The callow baby-faced and seemingly empty-headed Mario Rubio is supposed to be the “electable” option for the Republicans. Eek. Or else there is Jeb Bush, a strange amalgam: no evident political talent welded to the most unpopular name in American political history. How can he lose?
Weirdly, all of those possibilities are more likely than the one potentially electable Republican: Governor Kasich of Ohio. John Kasich is a rarity in his party: an outwardly decent, modest, thoughtful man. He says what he thinks (a hazard) and what he thinks offers little red meat to the rabid dogs growling at Muslims, illegals or gays. The guy doesn’t seem mean, vacuous, dishonest or shabby enough to appeal to Republican primary voters.
The next time you hear John Kasich get interviewed, what you will hear is the echo of another off beat, from-the-heart, born again, technocratic Governor who ran for President: Jimmy Carter. Bright, sincere, a little sanctimonious, more cunning than he looks but less cunning than he needs to be. That was Carter in 1976 and it’s Kasich in 2016. Governor Kasich may not appreciate the comparison, but it fits.
Put John Kasich up against Hillary Clinton and you’ve got yourself an interesting race: a really likeable, earnest, moderately conservative Republican, up against the moderately liberal, not really likeable Democrat whom not many people really trust. I would like Kasich’s chances in that contest. It would be interesting, but it won’t happen: John Kasich seems altogether too good a man to win the Republican nomination. He’s the wrong Republican this year. Hillary will likely have easier pickings.
Things can change. It is the most unstable, surprising political year in a long, long time so anything could happen. And it is that possibility – the unpredictable event – which is Hillary Clinton’s real adversary in this political year. Like LBJ in 1964, she is the sensible option. She can sail like a battleship through the minor storms of the Democratic primary, she might even cruise past the crazy flotilla of Republican midget maniacs. But she can’t master history.
She was inevitable in 2008 too, remember.