President Obama’s theory of what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2008 and is happening to her now is that America loves “the bright, shiny object that people haven’t seen before.”
There’s certainly truth to that, and it’s certainly the case that, in the past, a sense of sobriety has often kicked in over the course of a presidential election, once the shiny thing loses its luster. What Obama fails to mention — either because he’s downplaying it or he’s missing it — is the extent to which the shiny new object in 2016 may be a torch meant to burn D.C. to the ground.
Obama commented on Clinton’s travails in an interview with Politico’s Glenn Thrush. The president dismissed comparisons between his initial bid and that of Bernie Sanders in the abstract, focusing instead on how Clinton’s name recognition and experience have twice been disadvantageous.
“She is a good, smart, tough person who cares deeply about this country, and she has been in the public eye for a long time and in a culture in which new is always better,” Obama told Thrush. “And, you know, you’re always looking at the bright, shiny object that people don’t, haven’t seen before. That’s a disadvantage to her.”
He suggested that this tendency led the media to focus on her more in 2008 (and, by extension, this year), and that it was only once he won Iowa that the media and the voters turned a more skeptical eye to him.
“Her strengths, which are the fact that she’s extraordinarily experienced – and, you know, wicked smart and knows every policy inside and out – sometimes could make her more cautious and her campaign more prose than poetry,” he said, echoing the famous maxim from Mario Cuomo.
Sanders, on the other hand, has “the luxury of being a complete long-shot and just letting loose,” coupled with “the virtue of saying exactly what he believes, [having] great authenticity, great passion, and [being] fearless.” Sanders’s operating principle, in Obama’s estimation: “I got nothing to lose.”
That’s all true, of course. Clinton is an established Washingtonian, as thoroughly rooted in the the experience of governance as is possible. Sanders has served in Congress for many years, but as the representative of a small state enjoys the perks (and drawbacks) of anonymity and being able to speak his mind.
But it’s impossible not to think that the disadvantage of being as thoroughly D.C. as is Hillary Clinton extends far beyond her campaign being “more prose than poetry.” It feels, at times, like a very educated, thoughtful sales pitch for dial-up Internet service: A good sales pitch, but precisely not what people are looking for. Obama’s campaign was that of a new voice who promised to re-shape a disliked Washington. Clinton’s is that of an established voice who knows the ins and outs of a despised one.
When George W. Bush ran for the presidency, Congress was already into its process of polarization, but the body wasn’t hated to the extent that it is now. It was the subject of affable punchlines more than furious protests. In October 2000, about half of Americans approved of the House and Senate. Trust in government was underwater, but on the upswing.
When Obama ran in 2008, trust in government had been slipping and less than a fifth of the country approved of the job Congress was doing. The freshman center promised to bring change to Washington; the veterans he defeated in the primary and general embodied the Washington he wanted to change.
Now, approval of Congress has dipped as low as 11 percent (in November) and trust in government has generally stayed flat. Into that atmosphere step three candidates whose message is explicitly about dismantling Washington. Bernie Sanders calls explicitly for a political revolution. Ted Cruz regularly disparages the “Washington cartel” with whom he serves on Capitol Hill. And Donald Trump waves the whole thing away.
Last month, Quinnipiac University asked Democrats and Republicans about the trait they most desired in a candidate for their party’s nomination. As you might expect, only 8 percent of Republicans said that they were looking for a candidate with the right experience. As you might not expect, only 16 percent of Democrats said the same thing. Democrats were more concerned about someone that shared their values or was concerned about their problems than that they’d learned the intricacies of a 56k-baud modem.
This is a little more nuanced than the traditional establishment-versus-outsider dichotomy. In 2008, Ron Paul called for a revolution in Washington, a battle cry embraced by his largely young, male, libertarian supporters. In 2009 and 2010, with the advent of the tea party, demands for revolution — manifested, at times, in colonial garb and verbiage — became a feature of the conservative right. In 2015, a Democrat running against a Clinton (a Clinton!) while a Democrat sits in the White House has made “revolution” integral to his campaign’s message.
No candidate running in 2016 has a breadth of knowledge about Washington, about government and about policy that can match Hillary Clinton’s. That’s her sales pitch. On the Republican side, the candidates who are making similar pitches about experience and savvy are polling in the single digits, in part because of a splintered field and in part because their party is even more hostile to Washington than Clinton’s. (See David Axelrod’s contrasting theory of 2016 in Monday’s New York Times.) If there were a dozen Democrats running, Clinton would probably still be leading — but perhaps not.
There’s one week until the Iowa caucuses, but we’re still early in this election. It’s possible that voters’ dalliances with their party’s burn-it-all-down revolutionaries will pass as the prospect of actually steering this old lumbering ship becomes more real. It is also possible that they won’t — that after eight years of increasing calls to gut Washington, Washington will be gutted, starting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Understandably, the current occupant thereof hopes this is not the case.