THE Democrats can't lose the White House in 2008, can they?
Some 13 months before Election Day, the race's dynamic seems immutable. Americans can't wait to evict the unpopular president and end his disastrous war. As the campaign's poll-tested phrasemaking constantly reminds us, voters crave change above all else. That means nearly any Democrat might do, even if the nominee isn't the first woman, black or Hispanic to lead a major party's ticket.
The Republican field of aging white guys, meanwhile, gets flakier by the day. The front-runner has taken to cooing to his third wife over a cellphone in the middle of campaign speeches. His hottest challenger, the new "new Reagan," may have learned his lines for "Law & Order," but clearly needs cue cards on the stump. In Florida, even the most rudimentary details of red-hot local issues (drilling in the Everglades, Terri Schiavo) eluded him. The party's fund-raising is anemic. Its snubs of Hispanic and African-American voters kissed off essential swing states in the Sun Belt and moderate swing voters farther north.
So nothing can go wrong for the Democrats. Can it?
Of course it can, and not just because of the party's perennial penchant for cutting off its nose to spite its face. (Witness the Democratic National Committee's zeal in shutting down primary campaigning in Florida because the state moved up the primary's date.) The biggest indicator of potential trouble ahead is that the already-codified Beltway narrative for the race so favors the Democrats. Given the track record of Washington's conventional wisdom, that's not good news. These are the same political pros who predicted that scandal would force an early end to the Clinton presidency and that "Mission Accomplished" augured victory in Iraq and long-lasting Republican rule.
The Beltway's narrative has it not only that the Democrats are shoo-ins, but also that the likely standard-bearer, Hillary Clinton, is running what Zagat shorthand might describe as a "flawless campaign" that is "tightly disciplined" and "doesn't make mistakes." This scenario was made official last weekend, when Senator Clinton appeared on all five major Sunday morning talk shows - a publicity coup, as it unfortunately happens, that is known as a "full Ginsburg" because it was first achieved by William Ginsburg, Monica Lewinsky's lawyer, in 1998.
Mrs. Clinton was in complete control. Forsaking TV studios for a perfectly lighted set at her home in Chappaqua, she came off like a sitting head of state. The punditocracy raved. We are repeatedly told that with Barack Obama still trailing by double digits in most polls, the only way Mrs. Clinton could lose her tight hold on the nomination and, presumably, the White House would be if she were bruised in Iowa (where both John Edwards and Senator Obama remain competitive) or derailed by unforeseeable events like a scandal or a domestic terror attack.
If you buy into the Washington logic that a flawless campaign is one that doesn't make gaffes, never goes off-message and never makes news, then this analysis makes sense. The Clinton machine runs as smoothly and efficiently as a Rolls. And like a fine car, it is just as likely to lull its driver into complacent coasting and its passengers to sleep. What I saw on television last Sunday was the incipient second coming of the can't-miss 2000 campaign of Al Gore.
That Mr. Gore, some may recall, was not the firebrand who emerged from defeat, speaking up early against the Iraq war and leading the international charge on global warming. It was instead the cautious Gore whose public persona changed from debate to debate and whose answers were often long-winded and equivocal (even about the Kansas Board of Education's decision to ban the teaching of evolution). Incredibly, he minimized both his environmental passions and his own administration's achievements throughout the campaign.
He, too, had initially been deemed a winner, the potential recipient of a landslide rather than a narrow popular-vote majority. The signs were nearly as good for Democrats then as they are now. The impeachment crusade had backfired on the Republicans in the 1998 midterms; the economy was booming; Mr. Gore's opponent was seen as a lightweight who couldn't match him in articulateness or his mastery of policy, let alone his eight years of Clinton White House experience.
Mrs. Clinton wouldn't repeat Mr. Gore's foolhardy mistake of running away from her popular husband and his record, even if she could. But almost every answer she gave last Sunday was a rambling and often tedious Gore-like filibuster. Like the former vice president, she often came across as a pontificator and an automaton - in contrast to the personable and humorous person she is known to be off-camera. And she seemed especially evasive when dealing with questions requiring human reflection instead of wonkery.
Reiterating that Mrs. Clinton had more firsthand White House experience than any other candidate, George Stephanopoulous asked her to name "something that you don't know that only a president can know." That's hardly a tough or trick question, but rather than concede she isn't all-knowing or depart from her script, the senator deflected it with another mini-speech.
Then there was that laugh. The Clinton campaign's method for heeding the perennial complaints that its candidate comes across as too calculating and controlled is to periodically toss in a smidgen of what it deems personality. But these touches of intimacy seem even more calculating: the "Let's chat" campaign rollout, the ostensibly freewheeling but tightly controlled Web "conversations," the supposed vox populi referendum to choose a campaign song (which yielded a plain-vanilla Celine Dion clunker).
Now Mrs. Clinton is erupting in a laugh with all the spontaneity of an alarm clock buzzer. Mocking this tic last week, "The Daily Show" imagined a robotic voice inside the candidate's head saying, "Humorous remark detected - prepare for laughter display." However sincere, this humanizing touch seems as clumsily stage-managed as the Gores' dramatic convention kiss.
None of this would matter if the only issue were Mrs. Clinton's ability as a performer. Not every president can be Reagan or J.F.K. or, for that matter, Bill Clinton. But in her case, as in Mr. Gore's in 2000, the performance too often dovetails with the biggest question about her as a leader: Is she so eager to be all things to all people, so reluctant to offend anyone, that we never will learn what she really thinks or how she will really act as president?
So far her post-first-lady record suggests a follower rather than a leader. She still can't offer a credible explanation of why she gave President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq (or why she voted against the Levin amendment that would have put on some diplomatic brakes). That's because her votes had more to do with hedging her political bets than with principle. Nor has she explained why it took her two years of the war going south to start speaking up against it. She was similarly tardy with her new health care plan, waiting to see what heat Mr. Edwards and Senator Obama took with theirs. She has lagged behind the Democratic curve on issues ranging from the profound (calling for an unequivocal ban on torture) to the trivial (formulating a response to the MoveOn.org Petraeus ad).
As was proved again in Wednesday night's debate, her opponents have not yet figured out how to seriously challenge her. Now the story line of her inevitable triumph is gathering force. At the same time, her campaign works relentlessly to shut down legitimate journalistic vetting of her record. In the latest example, Politico.com reported last week on the murky backstage machinations by the Clinton camp before the magazine GQ killed an article by Joshua Green, whose 2006 Atlantic Monthly profile judged Mrs. Clinton a practitioner of "systematic caution" with "no big ideas." The donors' list and first lady archives at the Clinton presidential library remain far from transparent.
Senator Clinton may well be the Democrats' most accomplished would-be president. But we won't know for certain until she's tested by events she can't control. Had Bill Bradley roughed up Mr. Gore in 2000, it might have jolted him into running a smarter race against George W. Bush.
In this context it's worth noting that Mr. Bush's desperate lame-duck campaign to brand himself as a reincarnation of Harry Truman is not 100 percent ludicrous. A tiny part of the analogy could yet pan out. In 1948, Washington's commentators and pollsters were convinced that Americans, tired of 15 years of Democratic rule, would vote in a Republican. Like today's G.O.P., the Democrats back then were saddled with both an unloved incumbent president and open divisions in the party's ranks on both its left and right flanks. Surely, the thinking went, the beleaguered Democrats couldn't possibly vanquish a presidential candidate from New York known for his experience, competence, uncontroversial stands and above-the-fray demeanor.
You don't want to push historical analogies too far, but it's hard not to add that the campaign slogan of that sure winner, Thomas Dewey, had a certain 2008 ring to it: "It's time for a change."
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company