It is incumbent on me as a columnist to do one of those year-end things — the 10 best of this, the 10 worst of that or, as you will see, who had the worst year in politics. That distinction goes, with some reluctance on my part, to Hillary Rodham Clinton. As has sometimes happened in her life, events got away from her.
A good politician, as Napoleon once said about military men, has to have luck — and this has not been a lucky year for Clinton. If she’s the next Democratic presidential candidate, she will have to follow a Democratic president whose approval ratings — once as high as 76 percent — are now scraping 40. As a former member of Barack Obama’s Cabinet, she has to defend the indefensible, kiss the ugly baby of Obamacare and smile for the cameras. She can do it — no one soldiers on better — but ugly is ugly, and the rollout of Obamacare has been just that.
Maybe time will prove Obamacare a success, which I suspect will be the case. But until that distant day, it will remain emblematic of governmental overreach and (supposedly arrogant) liberalism run amok. The catastrophic rollout has been followed by even more bad news — higher-than-expected premiums, lower-than-expected coverage or, worse, no coverage at all.
Things will get better, especially if more young people sign up, but the program has left an indelible impression of ineptitude and dishonesty. In short, it has become a vindication of everything conservatives say of liberal programs. Even liberals are wondering if the government can make such an extensive contraption work, and at a reasonable cost.
Of course, Hillary Clinton is not a conventional liberal — not nearly liberal enough for some people on the Democratic left. Among other things, her foreign policy — as much as it can be discerned — has been robust and muscular, not shying away from the use of force. That’s not terribly liberal, but it won’t matter in a general election. She will still be caricatured as the classic lefty, the architect of her own failed health-insurance program. That was a dreadnought of a bill (1,000 pages!) dubbed Hillarycare that was torpedoed by Republicans and even some Democrats and sank — but not quite without a trace. The GOP will refloat it for the next campaign, bringing those two frauds, Harry and Louise, back from retirement. By the time the malicious generalizers of the GOP are through, it will sound like one of Stalin’s five-year plans.
It remains to be seen if gender will play the role for Clinton that race did for Obama. Probably not. The prospect of a woman becoming president has an air of inevitability about it, rather than the gleeful surprise that accompanied Obama’s stunning rise. She, like him, would be a first — not to mention an about-time. But Obama was otherwise an unknown. It was easy to vote for him, hard to vote against him. He stood for all things good and opposed all things bad. (Who knew that, like a surgeon who can’t stand the sight of blood, Obama is phobic about politicians?)
Clinton, in contrast, is no ingenue. She has been around for a very long time. She’s been a senator from New York. She’s been secretary of state. What she has — and has in abundance — is experience and knowledge, plus a vast network of friends and associates, who could in a moment fill every available slot in the government. Clinton comes fully assembled, White House-ready. She has been her husband’s go-to person in times of crisis, and she possesses — even her critics would have to concede — a daunting intellect. The only politician I know who is smarter than her is also named Clinton.
Alas, in American politics, the good can be bad. Recent Democratic presidents, with the exception of the exceptional Obama, have come from statehouses — Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. They proclaimed themselves Washington outsiders and ran their campaigns down the middle of the road — Clinton even ran over Sister Souljah.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is the quintessential Washington insider, a former secretary of state whose portfolio is devoid of a soaring triumph and whose name is attached not to some diplomatic doctrine but to a failed health-insurance plan. She might make a wonderful president, but she’s following a man who, by virtue of his failures, has made that harder. As in 2008, Barack Obama could wind up defeating her.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.