Republicans operatives — of the sort who man presidential campaigns and run political action committees — are virtually convinced the Democrats will not dump Hillary Clinton, no matter how bad her poll numbers and how dodgy her record as secretary of state is revealed to have been. One GOP insider remarked that Democrats would rather “go down with the ship” than find another candidate. “All the [Democratic] poohbahs are convinced she’s their best horse,” he observed. It is worth considering why that may be and what it means for the GOP field.
Democrats aren’t known for giving the nomination to the previous cycle’s runner-up. In fact, they are much more likely to kick the losers to the curb. But their devotion to Clinton is based on several factors.
First, theirs is a party driven by identity politics; I have no doubt that a man with similar credentials and longevity would have to battle it out. To be crass, Democrats elected an African American, so now it is time for a woman, many Democrats feel.
Second, there is a certain nostalgia for Bill Clinton, at least his widespread popularity and relative competence among Democratic ranks. Getting Hillary Clinton means getting Bill Clinton, but perhaps a more left-leaning (they hope, or are willing to convince themselves) version of the Clinton presidency. (Hillary Clinton was the ideologue of the two; Bill Clinton was the one who wanted to make a deal and be liked.) From a strategic point of view, Bill Clinton is the best campaigner and spokesman for the Democratic Party in recent memory (including President Obama), and having Bill Clinton back on the trail will be getting the band back together, a nostalgia tour for baby boomers.
Third, the Democratic field of Clinton challengers is extraordinarily weak. Reviving former Vermont governor Howard Dean or former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold would be a Herculean undertaking. More viable alternatives, such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York (a much more formidable and scandal-free candidate, I would suggest), are too intimidated to challenge the liberal doyenne.
And, finally, Hillary Clinton is one of those pols who bring out the tribalism among members of both parties. She’s the wrongly vilified woman and the unsinkable Molly Brown for Democrats; for Republicans, she’s the epitome of liberal hypocrisy. (Because she is such a flash point, it is extremely difficult to convince her supporters she is flawed or her critics that she is not the devil incarnate.) In some sense, Democrats want her so badly because the far right detests her so much. (This is why, bizarrely in my view, so many right-wingers in 2008 said that if they had to risk a Democrat in the White House, they preferred Obama — whom they saw as more reasonable and thoughtful [!] — over Clinton.) The more the right attacks Clinton, with more justification as the tell-all stories and books emerge, the more Democrats will rush to her defense. That, from the Republican perspective, is just fine. They are content to define her for 2016 and see the Democrats embrace the Obama-Clinton legacy.
Now, everyone could be wrong. Contrary to Republican perceptions, the Democrats may be more eager than the right imagines to get a new lefty standard-bearer. Clinton’s crowd may be wrong in imaging they can clear the field of opponents. Conservatives may underestimate the degree to which the Clintons can brush off scandal and controversy (they’ve done it all their adult lives). And Republicans may be foolish in thinking a right-wing ideologue (or a blah governor) can beat her.
All that said, it seems like the Titanic movie: You see oblivious people racing for a ship that is doomed. Go back! Take the next ship! But they won’t. The ending is ordained. And soon it will be every man (or woman) for himself (or herself).