Hillary Clinton has a few problems if she wants to secure the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. She is a leader who fails to lead. She does not appear "electable." But most of all, Hillary has a Bill Clinton problem. (And no, it's not about that. )
Moving into 2008, Republicans will be fighting to shake off the legacy of the Bush years: the jobless recovery, the foreign misadventures, the nightmarish fiscal mismanagement, the Katrina mess, unimaginable corruption and an imperial presidency with little regard for the Constitution or the rule of law. Every Democratic contender will be offering change, but activists will be demanding the sort of change that can come only from outside the Beltway.
Hillary Clinton leads her Democratic rivals in the polls and in fundraising. Unfortunately, however, the New York senator is part of a failed Democratic Party establishment -- led by her husband -- that enabled the George W. Bush presidency and the Republican majorities, and all the havoc they have wreaked at home and abroad.
Of course, it's still early. At this point in the last presidential cycle, the first hints of Howard Dean's transformational campaign were barely emerging. In 2002, the Democrats had no clear front-runner, but the conventional wisdom was betting on a handful of insider candidates with money and connections: Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman and John F. Kerry, and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt. These three were supposed to contend. The early polls gave them (especially Lieberman) the inside track to the nomination, and the media gave the rest of the field no more than its usual dismissive coverage.
But the netroots -- the far-flung collection of grassroots political activists organizing online -- proved to be a different world, one unencumbered by Washington's conventional wisdom. Even as the establishment mocked Dean and his supporters ("like a scene out of the 'Star Wars' cantina," laughed a rival campaign aide), his army of hyper-motivated supporters organized across all 50 states. This movement exploded onto the national scene when Dean began reporting dramatically higher fundraising numbers than his opponents. Had Kerry not lent himself millions to reach the Iowa caucuses, and had Dean not been so green a candidate, Dean probably would have been the nominee.
Dean lost, but the point was made. No longer would D.C. insiders impose their candidates on us without our input; those of us in the netroots could demand a say in our political fortunes. Today, however, Hillary Clinton seems unable to recognize this new reality. She seems ill-equipped to tap into the Net-energized wing of her party (or perhaps is simply uninterested in doing so) and incapable of appealing to this newly mobilized swath of voters. She may be the establishment's choice, but real power in the party has shifted.
Our crashing of Washington's gates wasn't about ideology, it was about pragmatism. Democrats haven't won more than 50 percent of the vote in a presidential election since 1976. Heck, we haven't won more than 50.1 percent since 1964. And complicit in that failure was the only Democrat to occupy the White House since 1980: Bill Clinton.
Despite all his successes -- and eight years of peace and prosperity is nothing to sneeze at -- he never broke the 50-percent mark in his two elections. Regardless of the president's personal popularity, Democrats held fewer congressional seats at the end of his presidency than before it. The Democratic Party atrophied during his two terms, partly because of his fealty to his "third way" of politics, which neglected key parts of the progressive movement and reserved its outreach efforts for corporate and moneyed interests.
While Republicans spent the past four decades building a vast network of small-dollar donors to fund their operations, Democrats tossed aside their base and fed off million-dollar-plus donations. The disconnect was stark, and ultimately destructive. Clinton's third way failed miserably. It killed off the Jesse Jackson wing of the Democratic Party and, despite its undivided control of the party apparatus, delivered nothing. Nothing, that is, except the loss of Congress, the perpetuation of the muddled Democratic "message," a demoralized and moribund party base, and electoral defeats in 2000, 2002 and 2004.
Those failures led the netroots to support Dean in the last presidential race. We didn't back him because he was the most "liberal" candidate. In fact, we supported him despite his moderate, pro-gun, pro-balanced-budget record, because he offered the two things we craved most: outsider credentials and leadership.
And therein lie Hillary Clinton's biggest problems. She epitomizes the "insider" label of the early crowd of 2008 Democratic contenders. She's part of the Clinton machine that decimated the national Democratic Party. And she remains surrounded by many of the old consultants who counsel meekness and caution. James Carville, the famed longtime adviser to the Clintons, told Newsweek last week, "The American people are going to be ready for an era of realism. They've seen the consequences of having too many 'big ideas.' "
Meanwhile, pollster Mark Penn, a brilliant numbers guy, has counseled the Hillary team to ignore the party's netroots activists as "irrelevant." (After all, didn't Dean lose?) Little surprise that in late March, the Daily Kos's bimonthly presidential straw poll delivered bleak results for Clinton, with just 2 percent of respondents making her their top choice for 2008.
At a time when rank-and-file Democrats are using technology to become increasingly engaged and active in their party, when they are demanding that their leaders stand for something and develop big ideas, Clinton's closest advisers are headed in the opposite direction. But big ideas aren't Bush's problem -- bad ideas are.
Yet staying away from big ideas seems to come naturally to Hillary Clinton. Perhaps first lady Clinton was so scarred by her failed health-care reform in the early 1990s that now Sen. Clinton shows no proclivity for real leadership as a lawmaker.
Afraid to offend, she has limited her policy proposals to minor, symbolic issues -- such as co-sponsoring legislation to ban flag burning. She doesn't have a single memorable policy or legislative accomplishment to her name. Meanwhile, she remains behind the curve or downright incoherent on pressing issues such as the war in Iraq.
On the war, Clinton's recent "I disagree with those who believe we should pull out, and I disagree with those who believe we should stay without end" seems little different from Kerry's famous "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it" line. The last thing we need is yet another Democrat afraid to stand on principle.
In person, Clinton is one of the warmest politicians I've ever met, but her advisers have stripped what personality she has, hiding it from the public. Some of that may be a product of her team's legendary paranoia, somewhat understandable given the knives out for her. But what remains is a heartless, passionless machine, surrounded by the very people who ground down the activist base in the 1990s and have continued to hold the party's grassroots in utter contempt. The operation is rudderless, without any sign of significant leadership. And to top it off, a sizable number of Democrats don't think she could win a general election, anyway.
Can Hillary Clinton overcome those impediments? Money and star power go a long way, but the netroots is now many times larger than it was only three years ago, and we have attractive alternatives to back (and fund), such as former governor Mark W. Warner and Sen. Russell Feingold.
Just as we crazy political junkies glimpsed the viability of the candidacy of an obscure governor from a small New England state three years ago, today we regard Hillary Clinton's candidacy as anything but inevitable. Her obstacles are big, and from this vantage point, possibly insurmountable.
Markos Moulitsas is founder of the political blog Daily Kos and coauthor of "Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics" (Chelsea Green Publishing).
© 2006 The Washington Post