Is Hilary Clinton Electable?

30 July 2005, 1317 EDT

Jack Weisberg thinks so. So do I. But remember, “electable” is different than “will actually win.” David Adesnik is unpersuaded, but I think he confuses the two questions.

With regard to Point A, Weisberg says that

Sen. Clinton’s political positioning couldn’t be better for 2008. Despite being a shrewdly triangulating centrist on the model of her husband, she remains wildly popular with the party’s liberal core: It seems to share the right’s erroneous view of her as a closet lefty.

Although I think “shrewdly triangulating” is supposed to be a compliment, that translates onto the campaign trail as “flip-flopper”, the accusation that did so much to sink John Kerry. From where I stand, the lesson of 2004 is that perceptions of sincerity or lack thereof are often more important than the subjects that a candidate is sincere about

I disagree.

The political definition of “flip flopper” is “someone with a long enough voting record to find real or apparent inconistencies.” The accusation is part of an organized campaign to destroy the perception of a candidate as sincere. Let me point out, also, that in the last two elections, one of the candidates who was effectively tarred as insincere received a plurality of votes (and lost due to a poorly designed ballot); the other received a higher percentage of votes against a wartime incumbent than any other candidate in history. So far, I don’t see terrific evidence that Kerry’s campaign was sunk by these charges. They certainly didn’t help, and they may be one of any number of things that independently tipped the balance, but let’s be a bit careful here.

I stress this definition of “flip flopper” because, unlike David, I believe shrewed triangulation insulates a candidate from these charges.

Bush was woefully inconsistent in 2000 and 2004. In fact, Kerry started out charging the President with being a “say one thing and do another” kind of guy, but his campaign also abandoned that strategy to in favor of a “inflexibility” narrative. A tactical mistake? Who knows. Regardless, he escaped any lasting damage.

Adesnik assume that Clinton’s ability to hold the left while wooing moderates will translate into a vulnerability to the “flip flopping” charge, but this would only be true if Clinton had tacked left and then tacked right in her political career. No one really cares if someone held different beliefs when they were a college student or a lawyer decades ago. Clinton’s relationship with the left probably has more to deal with built up credibility and with the left’s hunger for victory. If she successfully tiangulates, it may be through playing the “dog whistle” politics game – by engaging in what many social scientists call “multivocal signalling” (see my post on the subject from back in June).

In that respect, Hilary’s position may look more like Bush’s in 2000 than like Kerry’s in 2004.

David goes on to argue that

But the real problem for Hillary is that Bill defined the model of shrewd triangulation of which Weisberg seems somewhat enamored. Bill Clinton was the president and the man who would say anything to make you like him. Remember, long before John Kerry flip-flopped, Bill Clinton waffled.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? These charges were not effective. Furthermore, a lot of the “waffler” charge was really about conservative frustration with Clinton’s ability to cherry pick from their broader agenda.

David also goes back to the “no core convictions” issue:

Speaking more broadly, part of what makes it so hard for Democrats to seem like men and women of conviction is that the party doesn’t have a set of core beliefs or values that can unite its disparate factions. While reluctant to say that Democrats don’t have core values, even staunch and smart liberals such as Matt Yglesias openly acknowledge that the party has no message simple enough to convey clearly and quickly to the average voter.

I respect both Matt and David, but I think they’re only partly right here. The Democrats seem like they don’t hold “core beliefs” to many, but is this an essential problem or a problem of perception? Consider a number of factors.

1. Their opponents control all the soap boxes.
2. Their opponents use those soap boxes to attack the Democrats for lacking “core convictions” all the time.
3. The Democrats got badly outmaneuvered after September 11 – in other words, they made a number of tactical mistakes that reinforced this view.

There are, of course, lingering effects of the Democrats being a majority party for fifty years; governing does tend to make any political party a “party of interests,” and this is already happening to the Republicans.

But, honestly, an articulate center-left candidate – whether Clinton or Warner – might be exactly what the Democrats need to put forth core convictions that are recognized as such.

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