This past week, things had changed – oh, for the Clintons, obviously. From the most plugged-in Republicans to the voters using their lunch hours to see Republican presidential candidates speak, no one was scared of Clinton. Multiple voters, from Hooksett to Berlin, asked me if Clinton would actually stay in the race. And that new attitude has a lot to do with the rise of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and the summer swoons of "establishment" candidates.
Democrats should know the feeling. In 2005, right after the defeat of the Kerry-Edwards ticket, beltway wisdom dictated that the party needed a red state governor to win the White House. Nothing else had worked in 28 years. The New Republic profiled then-Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, whose politics "would allow him to attract swaths of economically challenged rural voters in places like Virginia and North Carolina." The New York Times profiled former Virginia governor Mark Warner, whose star was rising because "a lot of pragmatic activists and voters worry that [Hillary] Clinton is simply too divisive a candidate to take back the White House." Even then-Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana made noise about a 2008 run, with one supporter telling the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times — seriously, this was a long time ago) that "it will be difficult, if not impossible, to label him as a classic liberal."
And then? The 2006 elections happened. Democrats took back the House and Senate, winning states like Virginia and Missouri and Montana. Gone, very quickly, was the sense that the party needed to "settle" on an "electable" candidate. The door was blown wide open for Clinton and Barack Obama, who gained strength in 2007, almost in tandem with the tumble of President George W. Bush's approval rating. Warner and Bayh never ran for president. Bredesen never got close. John Edwards, who often polled better in general election match-ups than Clinton or Obama, lost four early contests then quit the race. Even before the "demography is destiny" argument took over, Democrats decided that the conditions were there to elect a truly liberal, inspiring candidate.
Republicans may be living through their own version of this — thanks to an assist from their friends in the media. The 2012 disaster inspired profiles of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the "Republican savior" (Time) with the perfect biography. It sent reporters to New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) looked like he could "save the Republican Party from itself." Both men responded to the party's Latino voter gap by advocating immigration reform — as, obviously, did former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) became "the most interesting man in politics" by telling Republicans that they needed to "look like the rest of America" in order to win.
You know where this is going. In 2014, an election largely played out in red states, the Democrats were obliterated. The victories of moderate Republican candidates in Maryland and Massachusetts — which in another year, might have offered lessons in party reform — got folded into a narrative about how any Republican could thrive in an Obama backlash.
For a while, Democrats hoped and argued that Clinton could re-draw the map. (Again, the search for an "electable" alternative to Clinton was a long time ago, ended by her strong primary wins with rural white voters.) At the start of 2015, her favorable ratings had dipped from secretary of state-era high but were still strong, and she beat every potential Republican nominee. This summer, only three kinds of Clinton stories made it into political discussion. One: How would she survive the scandal over her private e-mail account? Two: What were "Democratic insiders" saying about this latest bad poll? Three: What did the Bernie Sanders surge and Joe Biden draft campaign say about her electability?
Democrats control their panic about as effectively as babies control their cries on airplanes. Republicans have noticed. On talk radio, and on the trail, Clinton has been downgraded from a tough opponent to a piñata.
"If Hillary Clinton is the putative Democrat nominee and wins the presidency," said the influential conservative author and radio host Mark Levin last week, "she would be serving the presidency from Leavenworth." In interviews, Donald Trump frequently says that Clinton "may not make it" to the nomination. By the end of August, Rush Limbaugh was assuring listeners that Clinton would still be the nominee, because "no one else" could run for the Democrats.
All of this complicates the argument for "establishment" candidates, who never polled much better against Clinton than "fringe" candidates. The weaker that Clinton looks, the more that voters can experiment. The more they do, the more they'll hear conservative candidates say that the establishment lied to them, and that the loss in 2012 was due to "4 million evangelical voters" staying on the bench. Sure, Karl Rove has debunked that — but who's more establishment than Rove? If any Republican can win in 2016, why settle for a candidate who, unlike his base, wants immigration reform? Why settle for one who won't tear up the Iran deal on day one?
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who survived the summer with the best polling of any of the beltway candidates, has been saying this for years. "I think 2016 is going to be very much like 1980," he often tells crowds and reporters. "It took Jimmy Carter to give us Ronald Reagan."
His point was that it's the party's responsibility to nominate an arch-conservative when the Democrats look weak. One caveat: He said that about the 2012 election, too.