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Title:The Tyranny of Clichés
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In a move that had some of us dropping to our knees and shaking our fists at an indifferent God, C-SPAN recently announced that it is launching its "Road to the White House" programming for 2016.
For others, however, the response was more like "it's about time!" Chief among them is that happy band of political warriors who think it's "Hillary's turn."
Last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi admitted that she prays Hillary will run. Also last week, Emily's List, the liberal feminist organization dedicated to getting liberal feminist women elected to public office, announced it's big new "Madam President" campaign dedicated to removing some imaginary "men only" sign on the Oval Office.
Emily's List President Stephanie Schriock says the effort isn't — wink, wink — all about Clinton, but she concedes, "There's one name on all our minds: Hillary Clinton. Voters across the country are excited about her possible run. But if she decides not to run, we still have a deep bench of incredible female leaders to choose from."
Translation: If Hillary runs, get out of her — and our — way. The same day Emily's List announced its spectacularly unsubtle Madam President campaign, Quinnipiac released a poll finding that Clinton was the overwhelming favorite of Democratic primary voters. Sixty-five percent said they preferred Hillary, compared with 13% for next-in-line Joe Biden (who also may think he's owed the presidency because it's "his turn").
'Rendezvous with destiny'?
Ironically, Clinton might be borrowing a page from Barack Obama. In a less ham-fisted way, the Obama campaign cultivated a sense that America had a "rendezvous with destiny" (Franklin Roosevelt's famous phrase) to elect the first African-American president. Obama himself often underplayed the point, merely referring to the "historic" nature of the election, his candidacy, etc. His supporters weren't nearly so understated.
Director Spike Lee declared in the summer of '08 that when Obama is elected, "it will change everything. ... You'll have to measure time by 'Before Obama' and 'After Obama.'"
Though some of us might have rolled our eyes at that kind of hyperbole, it was precisely the kind of thing that got millions of idealistic young people and other first-time voters to rush to the polls for Obama.
The question is, in 2016 — or, if you prefer, A.O. Year One — will the same formula work?
Maybe. But there's reason for skepticism. Leave aside the fact that it is very rare for a party to hold the White House for three elections in a row. George H.W. Bush pulled it off in 1988. Before that it was FDR in 1940 and then Teddy Roosevelt in 1904.
First of all, gender and race have different historic and political frequencies. Charges of sexism, deserved or undeserved, simply do not have the same sting as charges of racism. And while most Americans would like to see a female president, that aspiration doesn't pull on the heartstrings in the same way.
More specifically, the simple fact is that Hillary Clinton is no Barack Obama. In 2008, Obama was still an exciting unknown. Clinton has been in the news for two decades. And even with Obama's glory in full fade, it's worth noting he's still a vastly more compelling personality. Watch January's (journalistically vapid) 60 Minutesinterview with both Clinton and Obama. The president comes across as engaged and energetic. Clinton seems like the person who comes up to tell you "there's no eating in the library."
Fickle approval ratings
Her supporters cite her high approval ratings upon stepping down as secretary of State. But that popularity almost surely has more to do with the fact she stayed out of the unappetizing food fight of domestic politics over the past five years.
George W. Bush's approval ratings have gone up over the past few years for the same reasons. But if Bush publicly started taking controversial positions, it's doubtful that his approval trends would continue. The same holds for Clinton. The sooner she starts acting the partisan she is — and has to be to win the Democratic nomination — the sooner she will return to her role as a polarizing figure.
Clinton's performance as secretary of State almost surely has nothing to do with her poll numbers because her performance was awfully lackluster. It's damning with faint praise that often the first — and sometimes only — thing her promoters cite as an accomplishment is that she flew a "million miles" as secretary of State. Who cares? Talk about celebrating quantity over quality. Her tenures as senator and first lady are pretty light on major accomplishments as well.
Maybe she can pull it off. Maybe after eight years of a fairly moribund economy (so far at least) and eight years of vicious partisan squabbling, Hillary Clinton can win with essentially a "more of the same" economic agenda, a lot of hoopla about being a woman and excitement over it being "her turn." And maybe Pelosi is right to start praying already.
Jonah Goldberg, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and National Review contributing editor, is author of The Tyranny of Clichés, now out in paperback. He is also a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.