Hillary Clinton likes to think of herself as a trailblazer for women – but one who is still following in the footsteps of her charismatic and still popular husband, former President Bill Clinton. But is she really the next “Comeback Kid”?
At one level their candidacies – separated by nearly a quarter century — do seem to share a common trajectory. In 1992, besieged by scandal and controversy, Bill Clinton lost the Iowa caucuses to Sen. Tom Harkin (who had the home state advantage) and finished a distant second in New Hampshire behind Sen. Paul Tsongas from neighboring Massachusetts. Many pundits assumed that he was finished. So did many friendly Democrats. No candidate since George McGovern had lost the first two campaign contests and gone on to win the nomination.
But Clinton did just that. In a divided field, and aided by one of the most effective television ads in American campaign history, the two-term Arkansas governor rebounded to victory in South Carolina and eventually captured the nomination – and then the White House.
It’s a feat that no Democratic nominee has repeated since, and it quickly earned Bill Clinton the moniker, the “Comeback Kid.” Now Hillary may be destined to repeat it – if she expects to win. She’s trailing socialist upstart Bernie Sanders by a whopping 16 points in New Hampshire and is barely holding her lead in Iowa. Sanders gained on her steadily in New Hampshire over the summer, and barring an unforeseen stumble, may well have the state locked up. Even when Joe Biden, who’s still contemplating a run, is removed from the most recent polling, Sanders still leads Clinton by nine points.
In Iowa, it once appeared that Clinton had an insurmountable lead. However, it has since shrunk to virtually nil. Last month, polls showed Sanders surging into a tie, and one poll had him firmly in lead. Clinton’s all but conceded that she might lose the first two contests but she’s looking to South Carolina on February 27 and to a host of other Southern contests – dubbed the “Southeast Regional Primaries” — on March 1 to catapult her to the nomination. Some pundits have begun referring to the South as Hillary’s “firewall.”
In fact, the first cracks in that wall have already appeared. In South Carolina, Sanders is making a strong play for the African-American vote. So is Biden, who is looking to the Palmetto State as his own springboard to the nomination. Biden enjoys close relations with House member James Clyburn, the party’s number three in Congress, who has influence throughout the state, and many moderates and Republicans, who are free to vote in South Carolina’s open primary, are fond of Biden even since he spoke at the funeral of famed Republican segregationist Strom Thurmond. Even many pro-Clinton supporters say they would be hard pressed not to support Biden if the VP comes a-calling.
In neighboring North Carolina, the political landscape is also increasingly favorable to Biden. A recent PPP poll found that he had pulled to within seven points of first, with Hillary at just 37 percent. As in South Carolina, it’s not just Biden’s uniformly high favorability rating among Democrats that’s helping him. It’s also the perception that he’s more electable. Mirroring patterns at the national level, Clinton polls well behind nearly all GOP candidates in North Carolina, while Biden polls well ahead of them. Arkansas and Georgia, part of the Southeastern Primary states, may be firmly in the Clinton camp, but there are real signs of slippage in Virginia and even Texas, where the latest poll has Sanders trailing by just 12.
Biden, of course, remains a real wild card. His formal withdrawal from the running would surely ease pressure on Hillary nationally, and would make Sanders’ bid for the nomination, barring more damaging revelations about Hillary, a steeper uphill climb.
In this sense, the parallels to 1992 should not be overdrawn. Bill Clinton was just one face in a crowded field when he began his campaign, with no obvious front-runner. Hillary is still her party’s presumptive nominee. She’s already been endorsed by some 30 senators, a handful of influential governors, and a majority of the party’s elite “super-delegates.” Many of these same people supported Obama over Clinton in 2008. Part of the resolution of that bitter conflict was that Hillary was widely viewed as “next in line.” No one would oppose her if she wanted the presidency in 2016.
If it’s not turning out that way, the Clintons have only themselves to blame. Their activities in and out of public office have tarnished forever their status as “underdogs” who despite their foibles, could still be admired for their scrappiness, command of policy details, and tough-minded leadership. In recent years, the Clintons have been relentless in their efforts to transform the federal government into a source of private power and influence. And their narrow legal defense of their shamelessly deceptive maneuvering has done little to disguise their deep sense of entitlement and contempt for the public trust.
Hillary Clinton paid dearly for this attitude in 2008, and in a sense, she’s never really recovered. Right now, she should be cruising to the nomination, not stumbling on the verge of collapse, with 90 percent of her original campaign chest already spent, and her favorability ratings near an all-time low. Even so, if Biden decides not to run, and Clinton performs well in the first debate on October 13 and in her testimony before Congress two weeks later, she may well recover her momentum, just as her husband did in 1992.
But this time the victory of the “Comeback Kid” could end up costing the Democrats the White House – and the Clintons, their vaunted “legacy.”