Now that two of the last three Democratic presidencies have been emphatically judged to have been failures, the world’s oldest political party — the primary architect of this nation’s administrative state — has some thinking to do. The accumulating evidence that the Democratic party is an exhausted volcano includes its fixation with stale ideas, such as the supreme importance of a 23rd increase in the minimum wage. Can this party be so blinkered by the modest success of its third most recent presidency, Bill Clinton’s, that it will sleepwalk into the next election behind Hillary Clinton?
In 2016, she will have won just two elections in her 69 years, the last one ten years previously. Ronald Reagan went ten years from his second election to his presidential victory at age 69, but do Democrats want to wager their most precious possession, the presidential nomination, on the proposition that Clinton has political talents akin to Reagan’s?
In October, Clinton was campaigning, with characteristic futility, for Martha Coakley, the losing candidate for Massachusetts governor, when she said: “Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs.” Watch her on YouTube. When saying this, she glances down, not at a text but at notes, and proceeds with the hesitancy of someone gathering her thoughts. She is not reading a speechwriter’s blunder. When she said those 13 words she actually was thinking.
You may be wondering, to use eight other Clinton words that will reverberate for a long time: “What difference at this point does it make?” This difference: Although she says her 13 words “short-handed” her thinking, what weird thinking can they be shorthand for?
Yuval Levin, whose sharp thinking was honed at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, is editor of the National Affairs quarterly and author of two books on science and public policy and, most recently, of The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. He is one of conservatism’s most sophisticated and measured explicators, so his biting assessment of Clinton is especially notable:
She is smart, tough and savvy and has a capacity to learn from failure and adjust. But . . . people are bored of her and feel like she has been talking at them forever. . . . She is a dull, grating, inauthentic, over-eager, insipid elitist with ideological blinders yet no particular vision and is likely to be reduced to running on a dubious promise of experience and competence while faking idealism and hope — a very common type of presidential contender in both parties, but one that almost always loses.
Her husband promised “a bridge to the 21st century.” She promises a bridge back to the 1990s. Or perhaps to 1988 and the “competence” candidacy of Michael Dukakis, which at least did not radiate, as hers will, a cloying aura of entitlement.
The energy in her party — in its nominating electorate — is well to her left, as will be the center of political gravity in the smaller and more liberal Democratic Senate caucus that will gather in January. There is, however, evidence that the Left is too untethered from reality to engage in effective politics. For example:
Billionaire Tom Steyer’s environmental angst is implausibly focused on the supposed planetary menace of the Keystone XL pipeline. His NextGen Climate super PAC disbursed more than $60 million to candidates who shared — or pretended to in order to get his money — his obsession. The result? The gavel of the Environment and Public Works Committee is coming into the hands of Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe, the Senate’s most implacable skeptic about large-scale and predictable climate change driven by human behavior.
Is Clinton the person to maintain her party’s hold on young voters? Democrats, in their misplaced confidence in their voter-mobilization magic, targeted what have been called “basement grads.” These are some of the one-third of millennials (ages 18–31) who, because of the economy’s sluggishness in the sixth year of recovery, are living with their parents. Why did Democrats think they would be helped by luring anxious and disappointed young people out of basements and into voting booths?
The last time voters awarded a party a third consecutive presidential term was 1988, when George Herbert Walker Bush’s candidacy could be construed as promising something like a third Reagan term. A Clinton candidacy make sense if, but only if, in 24 months voters will be thinking: Let’s have a third Obama term.
— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2014 The Washington Post