Hillary Clinton is no longer the inevitable next President of the United States, a summertime development that is not unexpected yet still surprises. Now the question is: Who will be the first to mount a challenge?
Two potential challengers (although both deny they’ll run) hail from right here: liberal firebrand and US senator Elizabeth Warren and our cool and collected governor, Deval Patrick. The interest they’ve attracted is evidence of Massachusetts’ continuing influence in national affairs.
Indeed, even though he keeps saying no, there might be a third Bay State contender in the wings: 2012’s loser, Mitt Romney. After all, Hillary’s problems aren’t only that Democratic knives are becoming unsheathed. Republicans also sense that, with a mainstream nominee, they might actually win in 2016.
What a difference six months has made. Back then, polls showed Clinton handily beating potential Republican rivals. A February 2014 McClatchy-Marist survey, for example, showed her with a 58-38 percent lead over former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a 58-37 edge over New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and a 58-38 advantage over Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Her numbers were so strong it seemed possible that no serious figure would contest her for the Democratic nomination.
Today, according to the same pollster, Clinton’s numbers have dropped by 10 or more points, while her three potential opponents have all edged upwards. She now leads Christie, for example, by a slim 47-41 percent.
It’s not as if the three Republicans deserve credit for those shifts. Rather, Clinton is somehow hurting herself. Some point to her new autobiography, “Hard Choices,” and the controversies it engendered. As part of the book-peddling tour, for example, she told ABC News that she and husband Bill were “dead broke” upon exiting the White House. That clumsy effort to identify with the struggling working class was the kind of patronizing, tone-deaf comment that got Romney into so much trouble last time around.
Then too, there was Clinton’s much-publicized break with Obama on foreign policy. “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” she recently told The Atlantic. That deliberate shot at the president earned her a caustic rebuke from Obama buddy David Axelrod, who tweeted, “Just to clarify: ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place’” — a clear reference to Clinton’s vote in favor of the Iraq invasion.
More important, I think, is the simple fact that Clinton is back in the public eye again. Many are remembering why they didn’t like her in 2008, when for a time she also seemed like the inevitable nominee. She’s not warm and fuzzy or exciting. She’s of an older generation when many hunger for someone new. She’s part of the Democratic establishment, only reluctantly embracing the economic-inequality issues that so fire up the party’s left wing.
And as books such as Kim Ghattas’s “The Secretary” make clear, she is decidedly different from Obama on foreign policy. Clinton was the hawk in the administration, a proponent of a muscular and unapologetic US presence on the world stage who sided most frequently with then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. She makes Democratic doves flutter nervously.
But whatever the reasons, any number of polls measuring favorability or perceived leadership show marked losses for Clinton over the last few months. The sense that she is vulnerable — and could even lose to a Republican — make it increasingly likely that someone credible will soon throw his or her hat in the Democratic ring. And once that happens, look for other hats to fly in as well.
The list of possible challengers includes not just Vice President Joe Biden and Warren and Patrick, but also Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and perhaps even California Governor Jerry Brown. (After all, 76 is the new 66, right?)
Clinton still has the edge on name recognition, access to money, and the makings of a powerful national organization. Even if a number of primary challengers emerge, chances are still good that she’ll end up as the nominee in 2016.
But all of that seemed true in 2008, too. As any bookie will tell you, good odds aren’t the same as a sure thing.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.