Columns » John Brummett

Can you say Madam President?

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Can you possibly hope to get elected president if 48 percent of the electorate would never, ever vote for you and if a solid two-thirds of those opposing you were positively rabid in their resistance, either finding you frightful or viewing you with utter disdain? Let’s examine history in search of precedent. Let’s go back to, oh, 2004. Then let’s go all the way back to 1996. Ever heard of George W. Bush? He was the winner of 51 percent of the vote in November 2004. He was considered so wholly unfit for the office by 48 percent that they voted even for Teresa’s husband. And if you doubt that this president is seen as frightful or with disdain, then you must not know any Democrats. How about Bill Clinton? He twice got elected president, most recently in ‘96, with more voters opposed to him than in favor. Keep those things in mind the next time someone pooh-poohs the notion that the next president of these United States will be Hillary Clinton. Keep them in mind when they say she’s too much a lightning rod and too widely and fervently hated ever to be accepted as what they call the leader of the free world. Right now I like her chances, because she’s getting her stuff together and the Republicans aren’t. You get your party’s nomination for president by star power, money, momentum and appeal to the base. Then you get elected by hightailing it from those things and straddling the political center. The most electable Republican prospect is John McCain, but he probably can’t get the nomination because he’s insufficiently conservative for the base. The GOP’s right-wing presidential prospects lack at present the crossover appeal to the center that Karl Rove fashioned for George W. by labeling him a “compassionate conservative.” Meanwhile, Hillary’s already getting herself covered on that. This product of Wellsley’s feminist movement, this former activist from the Children’s Defense Fund and the Legal Services Corp., this designer of that failed health care reform package who was widely considered the traditional liberals’ most valuable advocate in her husband’s White House — suffice to say she’s so covered on the left and for the nomination that she can afford to take them for granted. So, last week she went out and got the center-straddling over with. She journeyed to Columbus, Ohio, to the annual convention of the leading centrist Democratic organization. That’s the Democratic Leadership Council, from which her husband’s early national bona fides sprang. She delivered a call for party unity as she accepted the organization’s highest-profile assignment. It was announced that she will lead the “American Dream Initiative” to shape a Democratic message for 2006 and 2008. You might have heard that Howard Dean, the actual Democratic national chairman, was working on shaping a national Democratic message. Let’s just say he’s been trumped, and his party hijacked. The Clintons’ method of operation has long been to transcend the party until they get impeached or something. Hillary’s only possible problem — other than whether voters may tire of passing the presidency back and forth between Bushes and Clintons — is whether her centrism will be credible. But people believed George W.’s “compassionate conservative” spiel, only to have it belied. And they took to Bill Clinton’s “new Democrat” rhetoric, which, actually, turned out not to be altogether hollow. Has Hillary always been a centrist? Back in Arkansas she advocated testing the teachers. In the White House she consented to welfare reform. She snubbed Lani Guinier that time. Clearly, she’s always had a coldly pragmatic side, which is kind of the same thing, if not exactly.

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