I have no idea if Team Clinton is pushing this talking point or it all stems from Ron Brownstein’s piece last week, but I keep hearing people say that people trusted Bob Dole a lot more than they trusted Bill Clinton in 1996, and yet Bill Clinton was reelected. Brownstein’s larger point is a fair one. He writes:
Many factors allowed Clinton to survive questions about his character: satisfaction with overall peace and prosperity, respect for his skill and effectiveness, and distaste for critics who repeatedly seemed to overreach. But his most important shield may have been the belief that he understood, and genuinely hoped to ameliorate, the problems of ordinary Americans. For Hillary Clinton, it’s probably more important to match his strength on that front than to improve on the weak perceptions of his character. And that’s something she has not yet done.
So yes, Hillary Clinton would be wise to convince voters she has their best interests at heart, which is true of pretty much every politician ever. And she’s clearly trying. Fine, good point as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far.
It would also be really wise for Hillary Clinton to learn how to leap tall buildings in a single bound or to crack the puzzle of cold fusion. My point is that comparing an incumbent president with incredible retail political skills, amidst a booming economy, running against Bob Dole to Hillary’s predicament in 2016 is kind of ridiculous. I know she has the same last name and the same donor base as her husband, but Hillary Clinton isn’t Bill Clinton, 2015 America isn’t 1995 America, and none of her likely GOP opponents will be remotely comparable to Bob Dole.
In fact, the one candidate in the race right now most comparable to Bob Dole is Hillary Clinton.
Dole had been a fixture of American politics for over 30 years, just like Hillary. No one really knew what Dole stood for and he was willing to change his stances for political advantage (“I’ll be your Ronald Reagan if that’s what you want”). That’s true of lots — most! — politicians but the comparison has bite because both he and Hillary are really bad at plausibly explaining their zig-zags. Personally, I think Dole was more charming than Hillary — he had a great dark sense of humor and an amazing life story. Hillary can’t tell an unscripted joke to save her life, and her scripted jokes aren’t much better.
The GOP picked Dole with a weird sense of inevitability; it was his turn. Everyone I knew back then said, “Is this really the best the Republicans can do?” And “how is this happening?” We’re witnessing pretty much the exact same thing with Hillary.
Sure, she has advantages Dole didn’t have. The media will take its shots but will eventually rally around her. She’s a woman (something we will be reminded of a lot). But she has disadvantages too. She’s more boring than Bob Dole and only a little younger than he was when he ran in 1996. The economy isn’t going to be the asset it was for her — again incumbent – husband in 1996. And, while people didn’t trust Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton could talk his way out of that problem. Hillary Clinton becomes less trustworthy every time she opens her mouth. The idea that she can convince people not to worry about the fact they don’t trust her — or her husband — hinges on her having a gift she does not have and cannot be taught.
She may still win, of course. Almost anyone with her resources would be formidable. But the fact that her supporters are already finding solace in the tale of Bob Dole is not a sign of confidence — it’s a symptom of doubt.