Clift: Clinton and the Inevitability Question

It's too early to start measuring the drapes in the Oval Office. But then again, the Clintons don't have to; they've been there. They've cased the place. And the way Hillary is breaking away in the polls, the two parties might as well cancel the primaries and let her go straight to picking her cabinet.

You know the inevitability movement is getting ahead of itself when Bill Clinton is on television ruminating about having an office in the West Wing, and allowing with a chuckle that he'll take whatever she gives him, even if it's in the basement. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Hillary Clinton easily outpacing Barack Obama, her nearest rival on the Democratic side, and opening up an 8-point lead in a matchup with Republican Rudy Giuliani, who's pinning his whole campaign on burning her at the stake.

The Post poll explodes the myth that Hillary is unelectable because she's too polarizing. It turns out she isn't any more polarizing than the other candidates, and by 42 percent to 20 percent, she's seen as better able than Obama to bring the country together. Asked about the poll, which demolishes the central theme of his "turn the page" candidacy, Obama said he had talked to "President Dean" about it, a lighthearted way to make the point that in the last election another candidate seemed inevitable, and look what happened. The party ganged up on Howard Dean. He was untested, and he was an outsider, an insurgent.

The difference this time around is that the Clintons are the party, and Hillary is the establishment candidate. She's not going to fall apart like Dean. Her campaign has a level of professionalism that eluded Dean, a novice on the national stage. The Clinton campaign has mastered the mechanics of getting elected with the goal of perpetuating one family's hold on political power at the highest level. Samuel Popkin, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, is writing a book examining why senators so often have trouble running a good campaign. The list is long, from Ed Muskie in '72 to John Glenn in '84 and John Kerry in '04. Ted Kennedy in '80 is the prime example of a great senator doing a terrible job running for president. So far Hillary Clinton is the exception to the rule. "She's made fewer mistakes than any senator since John F. Kennedy in 1960," marvels Popkin.

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That's high praise. And it may be true in part because, like JFK, she's just passing through the Senate. It's a way station to the presidency. Just as Kennedy saw his destiny as the White House and never became a member of the Senate's club, Clinton is not really a creature of the institution—defined by its arcane rules and rituals—the way some of her colleagues are.

The story line will change, as it always does. The voters don't like being told the election is over, and Iowa is still a hotly contested three-way race. But various players are beginning to fall in line rather than risk getting left behind. It's not all self-interest wanting to be with a winner, although that is certainly a factor. Lawrence O'Donnell, who was Daniel Patrick Moynihan's chief of staff on the Senate Finance Committee when First Lady Hillary Clinton was making a mess of health care, is quoted in Carl Bernstein's book, "A Woman in Charge," as saying Hillary's war-room mentality—turning adversaries into enemies—is not how you get legislation passed; taking that approach, he argues, doomed her health-care reform effort. The implication is that she would make a terrible president. "I don't think those things," O'Donnell told NEWSWEEK. "I had a conversation with Carl, and I told him I'm not disputing I said those things to you over breakfast in Beverly Hills five years ago, but I'm dealing with a lot of other evidence now. And it's weird to me to have a book come out in 2007 with thinking I no longer have."

Approaching health care as First Lady, Clinton seemed to think she could get a bill passed because what she was doing was right. She now knows that government doesn't work that way. It takes 60 votes to get anything done legislatively, which means a very large consensus. The right template to judge how Clinton might govern is not what she did in the White House but how she's performed in the Senate, says O'Donnell. On that score, he gives her high marks. "She has learned the art of smart and principled compromise, something she did not know how to do in 1994," he says. "The place to judge her is in the 21st century, not in the old job."

Clinton has learned how to bargain and compromise, which is what legislators do, but that's not the same as charting a course for the country. For now, her theme is nobody can fight back against Republicans better than she can. For angry Democrats, that's a pretty good calling card. She's formidable, but not inevitable.

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Clift: Clinton and the Inevitability Question | U.S.