THE CASE FOR HILLARY CLINTON

By Susan Estrich

Regan. 275 pp. $25.95

CONDI VS. HILLARY

The Next Great Presidential Race

By Dick Morris and Eileen McGann

Regan. 326 pp. $25.95

Susan Estrich insists that Hillary Rodham Clinton can be the first female president. Dick Morris says the same thing about Condoleezza Rice. Right now, three years before the next presidential election, I doubt either one has a chance. But I hope they prove me wrong.

As both of these books argue, electing a woman would have a profoundly positive effect on American life and politics. Estrich writes, "It would change the voice of authority that comes into every home in the world every night." Morris and his wife, Eileen McGann, who frequently works as his co-author, add race to gender: "The very fact that an African American woman could actually become president would send a powerful message to every minority child that there is no more ceiling, no more limit for black Americans in elective politics." That's all true. I want my granddaughters to grow up in a country where little girls of any color really can dream of being president (even though Regan, at age 4, favors pink tutus over power suits, and Cecilia, barely a month old, leans toward stretchy, one-piece outfits). So the premise of both books is sound. But their political analysis doesn't quite hang together.

Estrich and Morris are both former Democratic strategists who appear regularly on Fox News, and at times they indulge in the cartoonish blather that replaces serious conversation on many cable outlets. Estrich tells us that Sen. Clinton is surrounded by "unbelievably smart people," that her top aides are "two spectacular women," that she will bring "an extraordinary mind and an extraordinary sensitivity to the White House." Morris depicts Secretary of State Rice as a philosopher-queen who "would bring a Wilsonian vision to the Oval Office, working to chart the way toward a world of democracies." Please, spare us the briefs for beatification.

These authors share another trait common to cable commentators: relentless self-promotion. Estrich keeps mentioning that she was the first female editor of the Harvard Law Review, and the book jacket proclaims her to be "one of the most influential public intellectuals of the century." Even though Morris hates his former boss's wife with awe-inspiring virulence, he can't help himself. He has to claim credit for her recent move toward the political middle. After all, he counseled both Clintons for years before turning against them and has long argued that only centrist Democrats can win the White House. "As I watch her strategies emerge today," Morris writes of his former client, "it seems that my advice is serving as the cornerstone of her current presidential candidacy."

Still, these are two experienced political hands grappling with an important subject. When you get past the towering egos and sterile talking points, they have plenty to say, and they agree on a key fact for 2008: The election will be decided by married white women. That's the group that turned against the Democrats in the last two elections and reduced Clinton's 16-point advantage among all female voters to 11 points for Al Gore and only 3 points for John F. Kerry. And Democrats simply cannot win the presidency without a sizable edge among women.

Whether she's channeling Dick Morris or not, Hillary Clinton answers this political challenge with a shrewd decision: to shed her liberal label and adopt policies marking her as a reasonable moderate. Unlike some Democrats, she can actually read poll numbers, and since only 21 percent of the voters identified themselves as liberals in 2004, it is sheer fantasy to believe that Democrats can revive their electoral fortunes by running to the left. As Estrich writes, "Most of us have seen too many losing campaigns based on populist slogans to believe for one minute that this kind of message ever gets you past 46 percent." Some of the senator's moves to the middle are well-known: calling abortion a "tragic choice to many, many women" and supporting the Iraq War. But Estrich rightly stresses two less visible issues: her religious faith and her defense of parents who fear losing their children to an increasingly poisonous popular culture. Here's where the married white women come in: A devout but progressive Christian who is "ready to stand up to Hollywood and stand up for the children" could have real appeal to the mom vote.

Unfortunately for Clinton, those are not the primary issues that drove female voters away from Kerry. Last year, their key concern was security. They thought President Bush would do a better job of keeping their families safe, and when terrorists invaded a school in Beslan, Russia, shortly before the election, a lot of moms looked at their TV screens and said, "Those could be my kids." Three years from now, security will still be a major issue, and as Estrich admits, the single biggest problem for any woman candidate will be convincing voters that she has the "toughness and decisiveness" necessary for the job.

The toughness gap is only the first of Clinton's problems, however, and Estrich downplays several historical trends that run strongly against her. Democrats have won only three of the last 10 elections, once with Jimmy Carter and twice with Bill Clinton -- both Southerners, both governors. Unlike her husband, Hillary is neither one. She is a senator from New York, and the last Northern lawmaker to win the presidency, John F. Kennedy, did it almost a half-century ago.

Since then, the center of political gravity has migrated to the South and the West. The move of George H.W. Bush from Connecticut to Texas symbolized that seismic shift. But prolonged exposure to the Senate's peculiar climate is even more of a problem than geography. As Kerry so amply demonstrated, most senators have trouble speaking clearly and sharply. They are legislators, not executives. They compromise and conciliate. They vote on both sides of many issues and have long records to defend. Before Kennedy, Warren G. Harding was the only sitting senator ever elected president. And starting with Carter, four of the last five presidents have been governors. Unlike lawmakers, governors are used to stating policies and taking action. Moreover, they are based outside the capital. Estrich says proudly that Clinton is now "an old Washington hand," but the country tends to prefer presidents from Crawford, Tex., and Plains, Ga., not K Street and Capitol Hill.

Despite Morris's animosity toward his former confidante, he thinks she'll win the Democratic nomination, and that's the core of his case: Condi is the only one who can save the republic from the horrors of Hillary. Morris's best argument is that modern technology shifts power to the grassroots and makes an insurgent candidacy far more feasible today. "With the Internet," he writes, "the idea of Condi for president will attract millions of supporters around the nation. All that is needed is to harvest the money through aggressive online networking." But of course, that's not all that's needed. For one thing, Rice is "mildly pro-choice" and strongly pro-affirmative action. As her predecessor at the State Department, Colin Powell, found out, those two positions are anathema to the Republican Party's right wing, which often dominates the primaries. Her single lifestyle is no plus with the GOP's God Squad, either. And starting a political career by running for president is almost impossible to contemplate; the learning curve is far too steep. Eisenhower was the last one to do it successfully -- and that was long before Morris, Estrich and company started shouting at each other for 24 hours a day on cable TV.

Rice does better than Clinton in closing the toughness gap, but she is inevitably shackled to Bush's Iraq policy. As national security adviser during Bush's first term, she managed a process leading to a costly and contentious invasion based on flawed intelligence and faulty planning. "Rice and Bush have bet on democracy" in the Middle East, Morris writes, "and the wager may well pay big dividends." But that's the kind of willful refusal to confront reality that works only on Fox. With 60 percent of Americans now saying the war was not worth fighting, it's hard to see Rice winning the presidency as the liberator of Baghdad.

Someone will get sworn in as the nation's 44th president in January 2009. Today, the odds strongly favor a candidate other than Clinton or Rice. And that's too bad. Liberia just elected a woman president, for goodness sake, and it's long past time for the United States to do the same. Regan and Cecilia are getting impatient. *

Steven V. Roberts, the Shapiro Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, recently published a childhood memoir, "My Fathers' Houses."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton