As the presidential primary season begins in earnest, it’s easy to understand why some Democrats feel optimistic about their chances. The Republican contest has been consistently awful, and the GOP may nominate someone who will flop in the general election. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, the candidates Democrats once feared most, are flailing.
Democrats have had their candidate essentially locked in since 2008. True, Hillary Clinton has yet to dispatch Bernie Sanders, and divisions within the party exposed by his candidacy linger. In the attempt to end that debate, Clinton supporters’ strongest claim is this: The first priority should be to win the general election, and Clinton is the most electable contender.
Consider the kind of person President Ted Cruz would nominate to the Supreme Court, and it becomes clear that electability is a serious issue. Nominating Sanders, a cranky Brooklyn-born socialist who knows how to talk well about only one set of issues, would be a terrifically risky bet. But the ideological fight between Clintonites and Sandernistas has obscured something important: Clinton is a seriously flawed candidate, and if Republicans put up a halfway decent opponent, Democrats have reason to be anxious about her ability to win.
Clinton’s lengthy record on domestic issues puts her at odds with the direction of her own party and the voters who comprise the Obama coalition. Her foreign policy record is a significant liability, both on her left and her right. And Clinton is weighted with a metric ton of personal baggage that has Republican hatchet-men watering at the mouth.
In private, some Democrats acknowledge these weaknesses. In public, many bind themselves to silence — airing dirty laundry helps the opposition, they say, as if Republicans and wavering Democrats will simply forget Clinton’s record if it goes unmentioned.
Isn’t it remarkable that in 2016, Democrats seem set to nominate someone who called the poor “deadbeats” that must be dragged from “dependency to dignity,” embraced racially coded language and urged efforts to curb violent teen “superpredators,” and aggressively backed Wall Street in the years before the financial crash?
Clinton’s foreign policy record gives even less comfort to her base. She voted for the Iraq War, then said she learned from her “mistake.” But at the State Department, she lobbied for a troop “surge” in Afghanistan, intervention in Libya and more military involvement in Syria. In the Senate, she supported the NSA’s domestic spying programs, and as a candidate in 2008 she slammed Obama for his willingness to negotiate with Iran. That’s zero-for-six.
Might Clinton’s hawkish record sell now, with Americans panicked by chaos in the Middle East? No. Many blame the present administration, with which she is inextricably linked. And her signature policy initiative at the State Department, the war in Libya, helped bring about that chaos. Libya’s post-war free fall has had destabilizing effects in half of Africa, with no end in sight. Consider, too, the great mass of Clinton material that awaits deployment by her opposition. In 2012, the Obama camp devastated Mitt Romney with an ad highlighting his use of tax shelters. Rubio has been hit with charges he misused a party credit card. By comparison, the Clinton Foundation, which does charitable work but primarily serves to brighten Bill’s post-presidential reputation and assist family friends, took in tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments, defense contractors and unscrupulous businesspeople before and during Hillary’s first presidential run and tenure as secretary of state.
The foundation’s operations are opaque, its accounting shoddy. Its acceptance of huge sums of money from some of the world’s most powerful people is properly understood as coarse influence-peddling. Imagine the difficulty Clinton will have in explaining to low-information voters why it was acceptable to take a “donation” of more than $10 million from the government of Saudi Arabia, or the sordid role her foundation seems to have played in a family friend’s acquisition of uranium mines in Kazakhstan.
The perception that it is Clinton’s “turn” cleared the field of more credible primary challengers. Were there one, it seems likely Clinton wouldn’t win. As it is, Democrats’ fortunes, and the country’s, are dependent on the Republican Party screwing up. They just might! But until they do, Democrats should be deeply worried.