How Bored Are Reporters by the Clinton Restoration?

Fantasy campaigns break out across America.
Photographer: Joe Raedle via Getty Images

Very, very bored. On a boredom scale of "Michael Bay action scene" to "Ingmar Bergman dinner scene," we are somewhere near that part of Shame in which Liv Ullman and Max Von Sydow eat potatoes. The most in-your-face evidence this week came in the Washington Post and the New York Times, both of which published big, fun take-outs by two of their best writers on presidential campaigns that are not happening—but, you know, if they did, would really roil the Hillary Clinton juggernaut.

On Wednesday, the Post's Ben Terris asked why Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown was not being promoted by progressives for a 2016 bid. The answer, midway through the piece, was the same as it had been for years: "He’s an older white guy." A Democratic Party that has made up for losses with white male voters by stronger identity politics and turnout with everyone else was not inclined to block the first serious female presidential candidate with a white guy. (At 62, Brown is just five years younger than Hillary Clinton.) Brown really didn't sound bothered by it.

"I don’t say, ‘I’m not running now,’" he told Terris. "I don’t know what it is. I know you don’t believe this, but I don’t really think about it all that much."

The big question in Terris's piece was why progressive groups were boosting Elizabeth Warren (who is 65) instead of Brown. The cynical reason, that Warren is better for building lists of names and raising money, was elided. The progressive movement-building is a larger part of Amy Chozick's "Hillary Clinton vs. Elizabeth Warren Could Delight Republicans," the news hook of which is the much-hyped wave of "Run Warren Run" happening this weekend.

Chozick focuses on a few undeniable facts. One: Clinton has struggled to adapt to the populism embodied by Warren and Brown, and Republicans are still mocking her for muffing a line about how "corporations don't create jobs" when campaigning at the same event as Warren. (She meant "tax breaks for corporations," which still doesn't sound like her.) Republicans and progressives have tried to brand the woman who lapped Barack Obama with working-class white Democrats as a rich banister, and the branding has sort of worked. 

Two: Republicans, facing a cacophonous primary currently led by 1) the loser of the 2012 presidential race, 2) the brother of the unpopular last Republican president, 3) a neurosurgeon, and 4) the senator son of the GOP's iconic gold bug and isolationist, would really like the Democrats to join them in disarray. Chozick quotes Mike Huckabee, Michele Bachmann, Rush Limbaugh, the editor of the Arkansas Project's own American Spectator, and the executive director of America Rising, the conservative PAC that tracks Democrats and has been trolling Warren to enter the race against Clinton. (A sample: "Warren Takes Shots at Clinton in Key AFL-CIO Speech.")

The assumption is not that Warren would beat Clinton. That's smart: There's little evidence that she could. A Fox News poll released this week has been covered as worrying for Clinton, as her total support from Democrats (the 390 polled by Fox, anyway) had fallen from a high of 69 percent to a post-State Department low of ... 55 percent. Her nearest rival was not Warren, but Vice President Joe Biden; they polled at 12 percent and 17 percent respectively. If Clinton decided against a run, the frontrunner would be Biden, not Warren, with a 37-21 lead. 

For comparison, at this point in the 2008 cycle, the week Clinton actually entered that race and John Kerry abandoned it, Fox emerged with a poll showing Clinton's strongest numbers—43 percent against the field. Barack Obama, who was not as well known with Democrats then as Biden is now, polled at 15 percent.

But 2008, exciting as it was, was not a policy contest that dragged any Democrat to an extreme. That's the conservative theory of goading a progressive to challenge Hillary—and it's based on a calcified idea of what the "extremes" are. In this theory, a law professor who was once registered Republican is more "left-wing" than Saul Alinsky scholar Hillary Clinton or socialist conference attendee Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton's fumbling attempt to say the tax code shouldn't include corporate giveaways was like a lost verse from L'Internationale. As we all know, attacking corporations and saying they benefit from the tax code is left-wing. 

Hang on. What was it Sarah Palin said in Iowa a few years ago?

Casting herself as the ultimate outsider, the former Alaska governor used a Tea Party rally to chastise the President and a “permanent political class” that she said has protected their powers and enriched them, their friends, and their contributors at the expense of ordinary Americans and the country’s well-being.

“There is a name for this,” Palin said. “It’s called corporate crony capitalism. It’s not the capitalism of free men and free markets, of innovation and hard work and ethics, of sacrifice and of risk. No, this is the capitalism of connections and government bailouts and handouts . . . and influence peddling and corporate welfare.”

When Sarah Palin says the political system is rigged for corporations, it's Tea Party populism. When Elizabeth Warren says it, it's red-flag socialism. Isn't it more likely that both are explicating a popular political concept, and that both parties are going to try to perfect that in 2016? If so, the idea that Hillary Clinton would hurt herself by unconvincingly appealing to the left is sound. Right now, Democratic voters mostly want her to be president, and the left is not trying to make her as much as it's trying to make the Democrats understand how popular this rhetoric is.

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