The Hillary Questions

Will she run? can she win? the fact that virtually every American voter knows who the "she" is in those oft-repeated sentences means that name recognition will not be a problem if Hillary Rodham Clinton decides to try to become the first woman president of the United States.

Nor will certain key qualifications. It has become axiomatic (in this case because it happens to be true) that Senator Clinton is really smart. She has a sharp mind buttressed by an encyclopedic knowledge of key issues and a work ethic that is Calvinism on steroids. She also plays well with others, a surprise to those officials who confused celebrity with the tendency to be a prima donna. Although the looming presidential race will mean her Republican Senate colleagues once again feel obliged to stereotype her as the Tokyo Rose of the far-left insurgency, privately it's a different matter. She has cosponsored bills on both sides of the aisle. She does not hog the mike at press conferences. They like her, they really like her.

History shows that she is able to woo agnostics and even naysayers. That is how she wound up with a Senate seat in a state to which she had only recently moved. (In the carpetbagger department she was inoculated by Robert F. Kennedy, who didn't even have a home in New York when he was elected its junior senator.) She bested her opponent by 12 points because she won over some Republicans and independents and upstate residents. And she carried the women's vote by 60 percent, even though pundits loved to parrot anecdotal evidence suggesting women were put off by her decision to stand by her unfaithful husband. At the time, Gloria Steinem put it best: "I think women can tell the difference between their personal feelings and their political welfare."

A presidential election will test how many voters can make the distinction between feeling that Senator Clinton rubs them the wrong way and thinking that her considerable skills make her prime presidential timber. It's also expected to test whether Americans are ready for a female commander in chief. That may be less of an issue than conventional wisdom would suggest; the universe of those who would never elect a woman is a universe that significantly overlaps the hard-core Hillary haters. Thus her negatives may help neutralize her sex. And while the most persistent rap is that she's polarizing, all that really means is that she evokes strong feelings. Haven't voters long been suggesting that they would find that more compelling than the none-of-the-above choices they've been offered?

No, the biggest problem Senator Clinton may have is with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Recent history teaches that when the Republicans suspect they have a front runner, they rally convincingly. Thus George W. Bush was lauded as a Tex-as straight shooter who would be a breath of fresh air in the bloviating smog of Washington (not a prep-school scion with no track record who could barely string together a coherent sentence).

But because liberals are idealists, they are unwilling to do the same. They don't even compare their most promising leaders with the opposition. Instead they compare them with the ideal, the perfect candidate, the standard-bearer without flaw. Right now that means a candidate who did not vote for the Iraq war (although, curiously, if the memory of dinner-party arguments circa 2003 serves, a significant number of liberals supported the original invasion). It also means someone who has never moderated a position for the sake of legislative consensus or personal gain: neither LBJ nor FDR need apply. The chatter about presidential possibilities for superstar newbie Barack Obama offers liberals a classic opportunity: this time around they could argue the black man versus the white woman and then watch, wounded, as another white guy takes all.

Can it truly be that the people who once brought us Social Security and civil rights, often through frantic horse-trading, are now so frozen in the amber of high-mindedness that they have become the official party of the Pyrrhic victory? In that case they might as well get right down to it and send a check to Ralph Nader. From Atlanta to Seattle and everywhere in between, Americans speak of 2008 as a defining moment. It may be the disenchantment with Iraq, or just a vague sense that something has gone terribly wrong with the promise of the American Dream and the level of national leadership. But if there were ever a time for the Democrats to stop chipping away at their own best hopes and start fighting back hard against opposition lies, it is now.

Let's see: brilliant, well informed, high profile, enormous war chest, works hard, speaks eloquently, campaigns well. No wonder the party leaders are worried. Will she run? I hope so. Can she win? She has to take only the states that John Kerry took, and then one more. (Or the states that Al Gore took, and the Supreme Court.) And the Democratic Party has to decide only that it wants to get behind its front runner, to win and therefore actually get things done instead of having the satisfaction of whining "we told you so" all the way to oblivion.