Sometimes the idea of a thing is much better than the thing itself. Take the Titanic, for example, or Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president. During the all-important conceptual phase, both benefited from an aura of invincibility — which is a great thing to have, until you meet your iceberg.
Before dismissing this as mere partisanship, please note that two years ago I unequivocally declared Secretary Clinton to be the winner of the 2012 elections. Departing the Obama administration on her own terms, her position within the Democratic party was at its peak. To her credit, she used that standing to clear the primary field. Now she towers above all prospective challengers, who remain too weak to expose her flaws.
By contrast, the Republican field is a free-for-all. Ask any New Hampshire voter following the GOP race (there are quite a few) and they will quickly list two or three candidates they could easily support. At least a dozen contenders will battle through the summer with only one outcome certain: The winner will be strengthened by the test.
All candidates have flaws, but protected by her cloak of inevitability, the depth of Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses has escaped honest scrutiny among Democrats. Start with her most basic challenge: following a two-term president from the same party. Obama’s approval ratings may have risen from 2014’s historic lows, but questions linger about the economy, Obamacare, and foreign policy missteps, making winning a “third term” difficult for anyone closely associated with his tenure.
Understandably, Democrats have little stomach for sharp criticism of Obama. More fundamentally, however, the Clinton pattern of evasion and ethical lapses should be cause for broad concern. This isn’t a question of any particular scandal; rather, it is a perception that for the Clintons, time after time, the rules and norms of American life don’t apply.
As secretary of state, Hillary didn’t have to use government e-mail accounts to transact government business; the Clinton foundation didn’t have to fully disclose sources of foreign contributions; and even as she began campaigning across the country against the “1 percent,” Hillary kept giving speeches at $200,000 a pop.
If she’s not breaking the rules, she is bending the rules; if she is not bending the rules, she is stretching the boundaries of ethical behavior. Ultimately, this raises a question of trust in the minds of voters. April polling by Quinnipiac University in the swing states of Virginia and Colorado showed a majority of voters described Clinton as “not trustworthy.” Weakness indeed.
But Hillary’s deepest problem remains one most easily masked by the air of invincibility: her name. Mistakenly, pundits trying to judge the impact of family history focus too much on favorability ratings. But even voters with a highly positive view of the candidate may be uncomfortable with the concept of another White House family legacy.
It boils down to voters liking the candidate personally – even as a leader — but feeling that “the next president should have a different last name.” That represents a philosophical obstacle, not one of policy or personality. As such, it is a far greater problem to overcome. A recent NBC poll showed Democrats wishing to see a strong challenger to Hillary at 43 percent and rising.
Which brings us back to that aura of invincibility. Having begun with a clear field, Hillary’s odds to win nomination remain better than 50-50 – but not by much. The press views opponents like Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley as too narrow or underfunded; but they have the potential to expose her vulnerability to a degree that others – John Kerry, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren — might be encouraged to jump in the water.
Eight years ago, Hillary was considered a lock for the Democratic nomination. Many hold that same view today. The Titanic taught us much about the arrogance of certainty. And in politics, as in the North Atlantic, when the call comes to abandon ship, it won’t be pretty.
John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.