December 06, 2004

Hillary Clinton's Secret Weapon

This New York Times article seems to imply that Hillary Clinton could never get elected president -- too many people hate her, you see. But perhaps Hillary's smarter than we think:
Mrs. Clinton offered a revealing answer when asked recently whether Republicans might be hoping that she becomes the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008, since it would give the G.O.P. a divisive figure to run against.

Mrs. Clinton - who studiously avoids answering questions about her presidential ambitions - quickly responded. "We have a president who is quite polarizing - and very successful, I might add," Mrs. Clinton said during an appearance on NBC's "Today."
She might be onto something. No really! See, there are a lot of theories on why Bush won in 2004, but one plausible theory holds that liberals whipped themselves up into such an anti-Bush frenzy that they couldn't actually put forward a positive progressive agenda. As Andrew Sullivan likes to say, Bush-hatred only helped Bush. In an evenly divided political landscape -- and in an age where, as Jon Chait says, personality matters more than policy -- running as a polarizing figure may well be an advantage insofar as it turns your opponents into raving lunatics. Clinton herself saw that in the 1998 midterms, when Republican anti-Clintonism turned so frothy that the GOP lost a good deal of credibility -- and a good deal of seats.

Hillary Clinton would also attract a great deal of negative attacks, and contra much conventional wisdom, I think negative attacks actually tend to backfire on the attacker. The "flip flopper" stuff certainly hurt Kerry over the summer, but it also allowed him to set the bar so low that he exceeded expectations during the debates and pulled even in the polls. Meanwhile, the "dumbass" attacks hurt Bush in 2000, but he likewise benefited from the low expectations they created. Clinton would probably garner a bunch of "cold, calculating, woman" attacks, but I think in person she's very good at shattering that caricature.

So there's your secret weapon -- divisiveness. I should note, though, that divisive politicians don't tend to be good leaders. Visit your friendly neighborhood House Republicans to see what I mean.
-- Brad Plumer 3:01 AM || ||