The Clinton restoration project is under fire from both sides
THERE are few greater political assets than the idea that you have history on your side. George Bush rode the good horse "inevitability" to the Republican nomination in 2000. And Mrs Clinton hopes to ride the same horse to the Democratic nomination in 2008. But can she pull it off? Can the Clinton dynasty bridle history as successfully as the Bush dynasty? That is one of the most intriguing political questions of the next two years.
The similarities between Mrs Clinton's position today and Mr Bush's eight years ago are striking. Mrs Clinton enjoys the same advantages as the Texas-governor-turned-presidential-candidate--from an overflowing war-chest to support from every established faction of her party. (Who else can claim to have a chunk of organised labour and the Democratic Leadership Council in their pocket?) But look more closely at these similarities and you discover that they conceal intriguing differences--differences that do not help the Clinton restoration project.
Start with Mrs Clinton's new-found enthusiasm for centrism. The junior senator for New York is following exactly the same strategy as the former governor of Texas--exploiting her celebrity to vault over the pander-fest of the party primary and instead run as a centrist from the beginning. Just as Mr Bush once ran, in those far-off days, as a "compassionate conservative" and a "uniter not a divider", so Mrs Clinton is running as a war hawk and a New Democrat. She has been steadfast in her support of the Iraq war--and has even argued for sending 80,000 more troops. She is such an active member of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Pentagon has invited her to join a special panel on rethinking defence. She has denounced violent video games and called abortion "a tragic choice". And she has gone out of her way to co-operate with Republicans (such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum) who once regarded her as the spawn of Satan. The NATIONAL JOURNAL ranks her as one of the seven most conservative Democratic senators on foreign policy--and one of the 14 most conservative on policy TOUT COURT.
But Mrs Clinton's job is proving much harder than Mr Bush's was. Her strategy was based on the assumption that she had the left under her thumb: that she had enough capital as both a feminist icon and a victim of the vast right-wing conspiracy to move to the centre with impunity. Two things have upset that plan.
The first is the furore over the war in Iraq. Many Democratic activists regard the war as such an abomination--an act of aggression justified by lies and driven by greed--that they cannot have any truck with someone who supports it, even a liberal martyr. The second is the rise of the so-called "netroots". Mrs Clinton may have the traditional feminist and labour groups in her pocket, but the internet is devolving power from client groups to local activists. The internet left is in open revolt against the Washington establishment, and it looks back on the Clinton presidency not as a triumph that should be repeated but as an error that should be avoided--a time when the party gave in on welfare and public spending and lost control of Congress.
Mrs Clinton will probably face a much more formidable field of competitors than Mr Bush did in 2000 (when John McCain was pretty much it). Her repositioning has already opened up space to her left which is being filled by Russ Feingold and John Edwards. As Ronald Brownstein of the LOS ANGELES TIMES argues, the former may become the Howard Dean of the 2008 campaign. The senator for Wisconsin has been a consistent critic of both the Iraq war and Mr Bush's war powers; he was the first senator to endorse a time-line for withdrawing and the only one to vote against the Patriot Act in 2001. He has also assiduously cultivated the netroots (he is a regular blogger on the DAILY KOS). Mr Edwards is developing the theme that he first sounded in 2004--that America is stratifying into a class society--and he has forcefully renounced his vote in favour of the Iraq war.
Mrs Clinton would be able to see off a left-wing revolt if she had the party's right wing to herself. But many moderate Democrats fear she will never be anything other than a liberal in the eyes of Middle America. And some believe they have an ideal mainstream candidate in Mark Warner. Mr Warner was not only a highly successful governor (remember that only one Democrat in the past 100 years has reached the presidency straight from the Senate); he was a highly successful governor of a Republican state. He succeeded in Virginia by persuading rural and small-town southerners to vote for him. And he was so successful that Virginians voted for another Democrat to replace him. Since the Democrats have little chance of winning unless they can break into the "solid South", this is a resume to conjure with.
THE BIG NAUGHTY DOG IN THE ROOM
The other hidden difference between the Bushes and Clintons is more personal. Mrs Clinton enjoys some of the same dynastic advantages as Mr Bush did--from name recognition (only 1% of Americans claim not to have heard of her) to nostalgia (62% of them have a favourable opinion of Bill Clinton). But she has one big disadvantage. Nobody expected Poppy and Ba to move back into the White House with Dubya. But nobody expects Mr Clinton to stay in Chappaqua. You don't have to be a wild-eyed Clinton-hater to worry about what he will get up to. Will he try to run bits of the government, thereby creating bizarre constitutional issues? Or will the big dog simply pad around the White House wagging his tail with nothing but time on his hands?
It would be foolish to underrate Mrs Clinton. She has oodles of money and star power. She can rely on a legion of earnest middle-aged Democratic women. And she has a well-oiled political machine, which will be fine-tuned during this year's Senate race in New York. But she is no shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. Keep an eye on Messrs Feingold and Edwards. And above all keep an eye on Mr Warner.See this article with graphics and related items at http://www.economist.com/world/na/displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_VPRVQTT