Hillary Clinton, Welcome to the White House

She has no Democratic challenger, and the Republican Party is no longer a credible opposition force.

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smiles as she waits to answer questions from an audience at Chatham House on October 11, 2013 in London, England.
National Journal
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Michael Hirsh
Oct. 17, 2013, 6:10 a.m.

In the in­ner­most sanc­tum of Clin­ton­land, it is dif­fi­cult to ima­gine that Hil­lary and Bill, two of the sav­vi­est politi­cians in the coun­try, are not pinch­ing them­selves to make sure that it’s all real. Per­haps they’re dan­cing a jig to­geth­er, or knock­ing back shots and howl­ing at the moon out of sheer, giddy joy at their good luck. (OK, Hil­lary’s not howl­ing, but Bill might be.) Or maybe they are just quietly kv­el­ling over the latest turn of events.

Be­cause the trend lines are un­mis­tak­able, and they’re look­ing bet­ter all the time: If she wants to run in 2016, Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton could have the easi­est walk in­to the White House of any can­did­ate in either party since, well, one has to go back a very long way. Maybe to Re­agan in ‘84. LBJ in ‘64, or Eis­en­hower in ‘52, or even FDR in 1932, 1936 and 1940. The pres­id­ency is look­ing like it’s hers to lose, more than ever.

The reas­ons are be­com­ing more ob­vi­ous with each passing crisis of Re­pub­lic­an­ism, but are even stark­er now in the wake of the GOP’s em­bar­rass­ing im­plo­sion over the shut­down and debt-ceil­ing fight. This is an op­pos­i­tion party in such a state of ex­treme dys­func­tion that talk of a third-party split in 2016 is al­most ir­rel­ev­ant. Why would you need a third-party split to win — as Bill did, re­call, cheat­ing George H.W. Bush out of a second term in 1992 thanks to the Ross Perot can­did­acy — when the base and es­tab­lish­ment of the GOP are no longer on speak­ing terms?

Re­mem­ber when poor Mitt Rom­ney, who even in the best of fettle was not a very smooth or re­laxed guy, twis­ted him­self in­to an un­re­cog­niz­able pret­zel to win over the base? When a man who’d been a fairly ef­fect­ive Mas­sachu­setts gov­ernor felt he had to dis­own his greatest achieve­ment, uni­ver­sal health care, and vir­tu­ally emas­cu­late him­self be­fore the gen­er­al elec­tion in or­der to tri­umph in the primar­ies, thus los­ing all cred­ib­il­ity (or at least iden­tity) by the fall? When Rom­ney be­lieved he had to out-San­tor­um Rick San­tor­um, the man once voted the second dumbest sen­at­or, and go even more con­ser­vat­ive on im­mig­ra­tion than not-ready-for-prime-time Rick “Oops” Perry?

Well, guess what, it’s only got­ten worse for reas­on­able Re­pub­lic­ans who might have a shot at win­ning a gen­er­al elec­tion against a pop­u­lar Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee. Whatever ra­tion­al, im­press­ive can­did­ate lays claim to the GOP nom­in­a­tion in 2016 — say, the pop­u­lar, newly trimmed-down but cur­rently-all-too-mod­er­ate New Jer­sey gov­ernor, Chris Christie — is now go­ing to have to out-Cruz Ted Cruz. And that’s just not pos­sible. Find­ing a place to the right of Ted Cruz, as brazen a dem­agogue who has come along in Amer­ic­an polit­ics since Huey Long, is like reach­ing the edge of the In­ter­net and then try­ing to go bey­ond. You can’t do it. Nor would you want to try. Nor could you ever win a gen­er­al elec­tion do­ing so.

Hil­lary, mean­while, can cruise to the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion. She is head and shoulders above any pos­sible chal­lenger, the polls con­sist­ently show. Yes, OK, we all said that be­fore the 2008 cam­paign too, when sud­denly a phe­nom named Barack Obama came along. But let’s be real: The Obama can­did­acy was like a per­fect storm, a hun­dred-year event, a freak­ish thing. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley is nev­er go­ing to be mis­taken for a phe­nom. Nor is An­drew Cuomo. Joe Biden? Demo­crats love him, but he can’t touch her either. And you can be sure the Clin­tons are not go­ing to make the same mis­takes they did in 2008, by­passing the smal­ler Demo­crat­ic caucus states be­cause they un­der­es­tim­ated the Obama in­sur­gency.

The demo­graph­ic num­bers tell a grim tale for any po­ten­tial GOP can­did­ate at the same time as they look like manna from elect­or­al heav­en for Hil­lary. The Re­pub­lic­an Party, still in the grip of tea-party ex­trem­ism, is more and more be­com­ing the party of dis­af­fected and aging white voters. Even many Re­pub­lic­an strategists are con­ced­ing that no GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee can win that way. But the party is not build­ing it­self a big­ger tent fast enough: Strapped down by House ex­trem­ists who can’t think bey­ond the de­mands of their scar­let-red dis­tricts, or bey­ond the next two years, the GOP is not likely to em­brace im­mig­ra­tion re­form des­pite Marco Ru­bio’s ef­forts, thus con­tinu­ing to ali­en­ate the bur­geon­ing His­pan­ic vote that so doomed Rom­ney. As my col­league Ron Brown­stein wrote re­cently: “Ab­sent big GOP gains with minor­it­ies, [Clin­ton] could win, even com­fort­ably, just by main­tain­ing Obama’s show­ing with whites “¦ [But] the first 2016 polling in­stead has gen­er­ally shown her trim­ming Obama’s de­fi­cit among whites both na­tion­ally and in key states.”

GOP strategists will say they’re chan­ging the rules, cut­ting the num­ber of primary de­bates so the next Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee is not sub­jec­ted to the same “trav­el­ing cir­cus” (as na­tion­al chair­man Re­ince Priebus called it) that Rom­ney was. But that’s not go­ing to change the ten­or of those de­bates, in which the can­did­ates will have to out­flank each oth­er on the right. They also say, well, you’ll see, the tea party move­ment is fad­ing, or at least be­com­ing more man­age­able. But it’s not, as we saw when 144 Re­pub­lic­ans in the House voted against the re­open­ing of the gov­ern­ment and ex­ten­sion of the debt ceil­ing Wed­nes­day night, cost­ing John Boehner the sup­port of most of what used to be known as “his” caucus. More to the point, sev­er­al of those who might be con­sidered ser­i­ous GOP 2016 con­tenders for the pres­id­ency also voted in fa­vor of the first de­fault in Amer­ic­an his­tory in or­der to stay in the tea party’s good graces, in­clud­ing Paul Ry­an, Cruz, Ru­bio and Rand Paul (sup­ply­ing the first fod­der for those Hil­lary 2016 at­tack ads). We’ll no doubt see a re­sump­tion of GOP ex­trem­ism in com­ing months when the two parties battle over spend­ing cuts lead­ing up to the next debt-ceil­ing dead­line on Feb. 7. The tea party is still dic­tat­ing terms to the GOP es­tab­lish­ment, and those terms are just too con­ser­vat­ive for the gen­er­al elect­or­ate. And who is now the point man for the GOP in budget ne­go­ti­ations? Ry­an.

Yes, Hil­lary has some vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies. There are still plenty of Clin­ton haters out there. John Kerry ap­pears to be ec­lipsing her re­cord as sec­ret­ary of State already, and then there’s Benghazi, which the Re­pub­lic­ans will re­sur­rect glee­fully if she runs. But in truth the mis­takes of Benghazi, which branded Clin­ton as the first sec­ret­ary of State to lose an am­bas­sad­or in the field since 1979, are not go­ing to stand up to scru­tiny. It’s wild con­spir­acy the­ory, ut­terly un­proven (in fact it’s been dis­proven), to say that Clin­ton covered up what was known about the Benghazi at­tack. It won’t work in 2016.

So, if she wants it, the broad cen­ter of Amer­ic­an polit­ics ““ and the White House — may well be Hil­lary Clin­ton’s for the tak­ing. We await her de­cision. But she and Bill must be feel­ing pretty good about it now. Maybe even a bit giddy.

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