November 2, 2007

Democrats must avoid Hillary

One of the nice things about human sleep is that, really, we get to fill the time with whatever we want. This phenomenon is so alluring that Barack Obama thought to name both of his best-selling books after it. So imagine my surprise last week when, at the tail end of a midmorning nap, I found myself dreaming about Maureen Dowd.

As in, Maureen Dowd, the Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for The New York Times, and the author of such incisive sociopolitical commentary as Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide. We were having lunch on the grass outside Cobb; I was eating sashimi and she was sipping something pink out of a martini glass. “You know,” she began, with a resolve that I will never forget, “you could never be the president of Vassar.”

“But we’re not at Vassar. This is the University of Chicago,” I corrected her gently.

She took another sip of her fruity liquor. “Still,” she said. “You could never be the president of Vassar.”

It got me thinking: What does it take to be the president of Vassar? Or the University of Chicago? Or the United States of America, for that matter?

The last question is particularly timely, since both Vassar and the University of Chicago acquired new presidents in 2006. Our country, on the other hand, hasn’t inaugurated a new president since 2001, and we all know how that turned out.

To understate things dramatically, 2008 will be a critical year for the Democrats. With the Republican incumbent’s approval ratings at an all-time low, next year’s presidential election will be the Democrats’ to lose. The problem is, of course, that should they actually lose—to the party that gave us Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rove, or, to be more specific, Iraq-gate, Katrina-gate, Plame-gate, Craig-gate, Foley-gate—they may as well pin the tail on the donkey and go home.

So the question is, who can be trusted not to screw up? Hillary Clinton, in announcing her candidacy in January, memorably proclaimed: “I’m in, and I’m in to win.” It was a remarkable display of bravado from one of the most polarizing candidates to run for the White House since, well, the sitting president.

So what does it take to be the president of the United States? It doesn’t hurt to have a former president in the family, of course, and until recently, a brain and a conscience were all but prerequisites for the job.

However, the single most important factor is electability. Right now, Hillary enjoys the support of half of all registered Democrats in the country. (Barack Obama, at 21 percent, is a distant second.) Fifty percent is quite an impressive figure, to be sure. Which is why when 50 percent of the American electorate claims that they would never cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton to be president, you have to wonder: What are these Democrats thinking?

It’s not that Hillary is the most experienced candidate of the bunch. Her résumé includes a failed healthcare initiative and six carefully calculated years in the Senate that nevertheless managed to be ripe with miscalculations.

It’s not that she most stands for the values of the party either—far from it, one would hope. Even if you were to selectively forget the controversies of the Clinton administration, right down to the last-minute pardons and the unprecedented vandalization of the West Wing on moving day, you cannot ignore how Hillary flits, at her own political convenience, from a position slightly to the right of Obama to stances that are borderline Cheneysque.

Jonah Goldberg of the National Review (forgive me) writes about an “irreducible core” of the electorate that will never under any conditions vote for Hillary Clinton. I will take a leap and say that this “irreducible core” is not composed of disillusioned Democrats… yet. But disillusioned Democrats who stay home on Election Day in 2008 will be exactly what the Republicans need to make a truly historical leap from the least popular political party in America (circa 2007) to a 12-year regime.

There is no limit to how corruptly the Republican machine will churn next year if a candidate as polarizing as Hillary is chosen this January. Her negatives are too solidified in the American consciousness for anyone to be bothered by comments that—let’s be honest—clearly tread the line of sexism.

Anecdotally speaking, I have talked to quite a few libertarian-leaning Republicans who have no trouble embracing Obama over Mitt “I had a change of heart” Romney or Rudy “every day is 9/11” Giuliani. And no wonder: In just three years, Barack Obama has managed to construct an image of almost unassailable honor—this is a man who has admitted to snorting coke in a national bestseller! Remember the madrassa controversy that wasn’t? The nastier the Republican machine gets, the cleaner Barack will come out. Make one crack about his name and you’ll be written off as a wingnut before you can say “Barack Hussein Obama.”

Later that afternoon, I finally remembered the Maureen Dowd quote I had read that must have triggered my dream. “Without nepotism,” Dowd wrote in a September 30, 2007 column in The New York Times, “Hillary would be running for the president of Vassar.”

Vassar may have dodged the bullet this time, but will the Democrats?

Frank Lin is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.