She could triumph over a weak and divided field, but many Democrats are terrified to see her as the face of their party again.
The Ghost of Hillary Past is threatening to become the Ghost of Hillary Present for Democrats. Could the woman who lost to Donald Trump in 2016 run a third time for the presidency?
A few weeks ago, everyone was convinced that Hillary Clinton was content to snipe at President Trump from the sidelines (he is all too eager to return the fire). But then Hillary appeared on PBS in early October to remark that maybe there should be a “rematch” between her and Trump. “Obviously, I can beat him again,” she said.
Clinton’s throwaway line started a conversation among the many Democrats who are less than impressed with the current presidential field. Willie Brown, the former San Francisco mayor who greatly influenced Senator Kamala Harris’s early career, confessed that he was in a “depression over the current field of candidates.”
He then brought up Hillary’s name. “It’s time for Hillary Clinton to come out of retirement, lace up the gloves, and get back in the ring with President Trump for what would be the biggest political rematch ever,” Brown wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. He called Clinton “the only candidate short of Barack Obama who has the brains, the battle-tested brawn, and the national presence to take out Trump.” He failed to even mention Harris, who is currently mired in fifth place in most presidential surveys.
Brown acknowledged that Hillary headed “one of the worst-run campaigns ever” in 2016 and that her approval rating is down in the basement with Trump’s. But “she sure seems loose,” he wrote, and during the recent book tour with her daughter Chelsea, “she’s come across as funny, smart, and natural.”
Both the New York Times and the Washington Post floated trial balloons for a Hillary comeback in the days after the Brown column. The Post said that Hillary feels “vindicated” by Trump’s current troubles. One source who has spoken to Clinton says she thinks about running for president “all the time” even though she acknowledges that the path to victory is steep. Clinton adviser Philippe Reines told Fox News just last week that “if she thought she had the best odds of beating Donald Trump, I think she would think about it long and hard.”
It wouldn’t take much for Hillary to think of herself as the best contender for the nomination. Her team is privately dismissive of the Democratic field. “They don’t have anybody who can win the general,” John Coale, a major Clinton donor, told the Washington Post.
“Biden is tarnished by the swampy Ukraine dealings his son Hunter was involved in,” one top former Hillary aide recently told me. He pointed to Olivia Nuzzi’s New York magazine profile of Joe Biden. She called Biden “the least formidable front-runner ever.” His campaign has poor fund-raising totals, he is only barely adequate in debates, and he often harkens back to the past instead of focusing on the future. As for Biden’s prospects in the primaries, Nuzzi was pessimistic: “Nobody will tell the candidate in plain terms what they think he needs to change. Not that Biden really listens anyway.”
Elizabeth Warren, the candidate most likely to steal the title of front-runner from Biden, has her own problems. While her panoply of “free” government programs excites the liberal base and many young voters, many in the Democratic donor class are convinced that her radicalism would be poison in a general election.
“If Elizabeth Warren is elected president, in my opinion, the market drops 25 percent,” Wall Street billionaire Leon Cooperman told CNBC’s Squawk Box, adding: “Bernie Sanders, same thing.” He believes that Warren’s proposed wealth tax would boomerang against her as voters learned that taxpayers would be forced to estimate the current value of everything they own from cars to real estate to art, private-equity portfolios, and private businesses. Cooperman even used epithets to describe Warren’s program to Politico. “I believe in a progressive income tax and the rich paying more. But this is the f***ing American dream she is s***ting on.”
The senior Democrats I spoke with about the nomination fight were in surprising agreement about the rest of the Democratic field. Bernie Sanders can’t expand beyond his current base, and his recent heart attack has planted doubts about him with some voters.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg has run a good campaign and raised more than $50 million, but he strikes many as someone who’d best serve as a vice-presidential nominee. If he were at the top of the ticket, his status as an openly gay candidate has party elders worrying that religious minority voters wouldn’t turn out in high numbers for him in a general election.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has promise as a centrist contender but only if Biden’s fall from front-runner status is precipitous enough.
What senior Democrats did agree on is that it remains unlikely that Hillary Clinton will parachute into the race, but a couple admitted to me that their opinion is shaped in part by their terror that she would once again represent the party. “She would still be the perfect foil for Trump, and voters who wanted a fresh face in the White House would be tempted to stay home,” one told me.
Nonetheless, my source acknowledged that Clinton would be formidable and could win the Democratic nomination: “In a divided field she could raise huge bucks, rally older feminist voters, and win like Trump did over a divided field based on sky-high name ID.”
One thing we’ve learned about Donald Trump. No matter how many mistakes and blunders Trump makes, he seems to have an uncanny ability to draw opponents who enable him to survive. Should Hillary indeed decide to run again, his run of good luck would probably be extended.