Michael Barone: Hillary Clinton won’t have an easy ride to presidency
By Michael Barone
Will Hillary Clinton be elected America’s next president? The polls suggest she will.
Recent polls compiled by Real Clear Politics show her winning 67 percent of the vote in Democratic primaries, with no other candidate above 11 percent. General election polling shows Clinton with an average lead over various possible Republican nominees of 51 to 39 percent.
But an election isn’t over until it is over, and this one hasn’t started. For one thing, no one is sure whether Clinton will actually run.
She turns 69 in 2016 (the same age as Ronald Reagan when he was first elected in 1980) and she may consider that her achievements in eight years as first lady and U.S. senator, and four years as secretary of state are enough for one lifetime.
Her achievements in that last office may look less impressive than they did in the first Obama term when majorities expressed approval of the president’s foreign policy. Clinton’s proudly proclaimed “reset” with Russia suddenly looks less like a triumph than a misfire.
She’s also had health scares: a blood clot behind her right knee in 1998 and another in her skull in December 2012.
The 2016 election will be only the fourth in the last 40 years in which the incumbent president wasn’t running. In the previous three — 1988, 2000, 2008 — the candidate of the president’s party ran roughly in line with the incumbent’s job approval.
That produced a 53 percent to 46 percent victory for George H. W. Bush, a popular vote plurality for Al Gore and a 53-46 defeat for John McCain.
The odd thing about 2016 polling is that Hillary Clinton runs far above Barack Obama’s current job approval — currently 43 percent — while in the few polls pitting Vice President Joe Biden and others against Republicans, those Democrats run far behind.
That’s odd, because we’re in a period of straight-ticket voting, and in recent Senate and House elections, Democratic candidates have won percentages highly correlated with Obama’s job approval.
One reason Clinton may be running ahead of the president’s approval is the high retrospective approval of Bill Clinton’s presidency. The 1990s are remembered, largely but not entirely accurately, as a time of booming job growth, technological progress, peace and American primacy abroad.
The last six years of Clinton’s presidency, when Republicans had majorities in both houses of Congress, are seen as times of bipartisan cooperation and reform. Back in 2008, Obama said he wanted to be a transformative president like Ronald Reagan, rather than an accommodating president like Bill Clinton.
Obama has operated that way, declining Clinton-style triangulating between his party’s liberals and the other party’s conservatives. Today’s low Obama approval rating and Clinton’s higher percentages suggest that many independent voters prefer the Clinton model.
But if Bill Clinton is a political asset for his wife’s candidacy, he could also prove to be a liability. He has continued to be more politically active — though not taking a harsh partisan approach — than just about any other former president except Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt.
Two other family members of presidents have been elected president while those former presidents were alive, but both forebears were politically inactive. George H. W. Bush withdrew from politics after he lost in 1992, and John Adams was 89 years old when John Quincy Adams took the oath in 1825.
A case can be made that many voters would be pleased to see an experienced, somewhat mellowed and undoubtedly brainy Bill Clinton as an adviser always on call to a second President Clinton.
But personal feelings toward Bill Clinton were decidedly negative after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, and a case can be made that many voters have little appetite for having such shenanigans touch the White House again.
President Clinton’s aides were always on guard against “bimbo eruptions,” and his possible “first gentleman” role seems to be triggering a revival of interest in his extracurricular adventures.
In the last month alone, he posed, presumably inadvertently, with two Nevada prostitutes, and more recently the widely read Daily Mail ran a story on his travels a decade ago on the private plane of a man later convicted of having sex with a minor.
On balance I suspect that Bill Clinton would be more of an asset than a liability to a Hillary Clinton candidacy. But I’m not sure whether voters have sorted out their conflicting feelings about the 42nd president.
And I’m not sure whether Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers represent anything more than a preference for a familiar and widely respected figure over passels of little-known Democrats (and a much-derided vice president) and Republicans. We’ll see — if she runs.