Hillary Can Run, but Can She Win?
By BOB HERBERT
If you talk to strategists in the two major parties, you will hear again and again that Hillary Rodham Clinton is all but certain to capture the Democratic presidential nomination. Many of these strategists and party bigwigs — not all, but many — speak as though there is something inevitable about Mrs. Clinton ascending to the nomination.
A prominent Democratic operative, who asked not to be identified, told me yesterday, "I do think she's inevitable as the nominee, or pretty close to it. Put it this way: she's as strong a front-runner as any non-incumbent presidential candidate has been in modern history."
Mrs. Clinton has not said publicly that she is running for president. But those who think she has an iron grip on the nomination make a strong case. First (and for many of the strategists, most important), she has tremendous financial resources to go along with her Hollywood-like celebrity.
In addition, the Democratic primaries tend to be dominated by groups that are very favorably disposed toward Mrs. Clinton and her husband. (You've heard of him. His name is Bill.) Think labor, pro-choice advocates, environmental organizations and groups that look out for the interests of blacks and other minorities.
As these groups see the Clinton Express leaving the station, there is every reason to believe there will be a rush to hop onboard.
And then there are the qualities Mrs. Clinton would bring to a presidential run. She's smart, hard-working, disciplined and aggressive. Said one observer: "When they start campaigning, people will see that she's a better talent than a lot of the other people who will be running in this field. She'll be formidable. She should not be underestimated."
The senator also has a very big advantage that nearly everyone points to — Bill Clinton is the most gifted and best-connected Democratic strategist in the country.
So Mrs. Clinton's perceived pluses are enormous. But I wouldn't crown the candidate yet.
There are ominous stirrings in the tea leaves.
A WNBC/Marist Poll released this week found that 60 percent of registered voters in Mrs. Clinton's home state of New York believe that she will make a run for the White House. But 66 percent of the voters do not think she will be elected president. Even Democratic voters seemed skeptical. Fifty-seven percent of the Democrats surveyed said it was "not very likely" or "not likely at all" that she would be elected.
Numbers like that coming out of New York, a heavily Democratic state in which Mrs. Clinton is extremely popular, are a recipe for anxiety. "It might give Democrats pause," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the poll. He said the numbers might indicate that she had some "repair work" to do on the all-important matter of electability.
She has other problems.
Democratic voters, fed up with the policies and the incompetence of the Bush administration, are looking for genuine leadership this time around. They are tired of Democrats who seem to have mortgaged their core principles and put their courage in cold storage.
So they worry when Mrs. Clinton, in an era when civil liberties are being eroded in the United States, goes out of her way to co-sponsor a bill that would criminalize the burning of the American flag. And they worry about her support for President Bush's war in Iraq. And they really worry when they hear that Rupert Murdoch, of all people, will be hosting a fund-raiser for her.
It's way early. The presidential primaries are more than a year and a half away. But whether it's fair or not, the candidate perceived to be in the lead gets the closest early scrutiny.
When the crunch comes, the toughest issue for Mrs. Clinton may be the one that so far has been talked about the least. If she runs, she'll be handicapped by her gender. Anyone who thinks it won't be difficult for a woman to get elected president of the United States should go home, take a nap, wake up refreshed and think again.
Being a woman will cost Mrs. Clinton. How much is anybody's guess. In a close race, it might be two percentage points, or four, or more.
The curtain has already gone up on this drama. And while the strategists may claim that this or that development is inevitable, the only thing we can really be sure of is that history is full of surprises.