Politics & Policy

The Clintons: America’s Luckiest Political Family

Hillary and Bill at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, July 28, 2016. (MIke Segar/Reuters)
At every turn, good fortune has found its way to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

‘Ability,” Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have proposed, “is of little account without opportunity.” In our modern vernacular, this idea would be put a trifle differently: “You can be good,” we might posit, “but you also need to be lucky.” Has there ever been a family to which this maxim could be more appropriately attached than the Clintons?

Perhaps the most talented national politician of his generation, Bill Clinton was nevertheless a routine beneficiary of improbable good fortune. During the 1992 election season, Clinton managed to walk calmly across No Man’s Land without catching so much as a scratch. During the primary, his late-stage rival Jerry Brown gaffed his way out of a mathematically unassailable polling advantage and permitted the less-known Clinton to sneak to victory against all the odds. During the general election, a deteriorating economy, a spate of Republican infighting, and the vagarious behavior of a popular third-party candidate helped Clinton overcome his manifold character deficiencies and pull off a historic upset against an overqualified opponent, who, just a year earlier, had commanded a public approval rating of 89 percent. As he racked up his successes, the press came to see Clinton as the “comeback kid.” In truth, “fortunate kid” would have been more on the mark.

In office, Clinton’s fairy godmother continued to visit him as a matter of course. Through no great skill of his own, Clinton took the reins at the precise moment at which the economy began to recover, when the hitherto-silent tech boom sprung happily into public view, and at which the international order — which, for decades, had been polluted by a grinding cold war — settled down enough to accommodate the promise of a “peace dividend.” An old saw holds that Barry Goldwater won the 1964 election but took office in 1981 under a different name. An updated version might contend that the supply-side reforms and deregulatory efforts that began under Jimmy Carter and accelerated under presidents Reagan and Bush found their most obvious expression while Bill Clinton sat in the White House. For declining to interfere too heavily in the 1990s boom, both President Clinton and the Republican Congress deserve some credit. But they do not necessarily deserve the plaudits of authorship. Of all the factors that contributed to Clinton’s perceived success, being in the right place at the right time was perhaps the most crucial.

How could a commander-in-chief survive a sex scandal and a perjury charge? Ken Starr and 4 percent growth, that’s how.

If 1992 served as a comedy of serendipities for the Clintons, 1996 and 1998 hinted at Providence itself. In ’96, the Republican party nominated Bob Dole as its presidential candidate, and then proceeded to split down the middle having done so. In 1998, a year that should have been infamous for Clinton, the GOP disastrously overplayed its hand and thereby managed to turn a story about the president’s arrogance, mendacity, and adulterousness into a distressing tale of tone-deafness and overreach. As ever, Clinton was lucky in his foes and fortunate to have inherited a prosperous backdrop against which the notion of impeachment held limited luster. How could a commander-in-chief survive a sex scandal and a perjury charge? Ken Starr and 4 percent growth, that’s how.

Ceteris paribus, Bill Clinton’s wife seems set to profit from events in a similar fashion. As we learned in 2008, Hillary Clinton possesses few of her husband’s political facilities, and, when obliged to square off against a superior opponent, is liable to crumble and fall. And yet, in 2016 fate has conspired to ensure that no such superior opponent will intrude upon her ambitions. Under Obama’s self-centered leadership, the Democratic party has been decimated at all but the presidential level — one key result of which has been the destruction of its talent pool. How, one wonders, would Hillary have fared this time around had she been required to vanquish a more popular and more appealing cast of characters than Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee, and Bernie Sanders? And how would this election look now if the Republican party had opted to take a course other than ignominious self-immolation? That Clinton remains the favorite in November is, when one stops to reflect for a moment, nothing short of extraordinary. Damaged by scandal, suspected of methodical dishonesty, loathed by much of the country, and charged with seeking the third term of a divisive president whose performance has been mediocre at best, Clinton remains viable only because the opposing party has accorded her the opportunity to utter a magical, life-restoring phrase: “I am not Donald Trump.”

#related#A recent troll-poll conducted by the entertainment-firm PPP revealed that nearly 15 percent of Democrats believe that Hillary Clinton may have ties to the Devil. To run such a notion past the sharp blades of Occam’s razor is to dismiss such an idea as a fantasy; unlike Robert Johnson, Clinton is too dull to be involved with Lucifer. But at the edges of one’s mind, one has to review the past 25 years and to wonder: What is it about the Clintons that invites such perpetual good luck? Are the rest of us missing a trick somewhere?

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