Clinton's primary problem in the race to the top

New tweeter and retired Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is shaping as a lock for the Democratic nomination in 2016. Less known is that the Republicans could have an unassailable candidate soon too.

Hillary Clinton finally made it onto Twitter last week, presumably a medium she regarded as too fraught with risk to meddle with as Secretary of State. Being Twitter, Clinton's bio is brief enough to quote in full:  "Wife, mom, lawyer, women & kids advocate, FLOAR, FLOTUS, US Senator, SecState, author, dog owner, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, glass ceiling cracker, TBD…' (FLOAR, if you're wondering, stands for First Lady of Arkansas, harkening back to Bubba's lengthy stint as governor.)

If Twitter bios were poetry, this is Yeats: at once boastful and self-deprecating, a little camp, and utterly tantalising. The "TBD" sign-off alone would have been enough to send DC into a full-blown tizzy if it weren't for its current preoccupation with the NSA revelations (which, depending on your point of view, represent either the biggest scandal in the history of the known universe or a minor filing mishap).

Being from a Clinton, it's impossible not to parse the words with maximal cynicism. Was it focus group tested, I find myself wondering. How many consultants played a part in its drafting? Was "dog-owner" Bill's idea? (I bet it was). In any case, credit to whomever wrote it – which may well have been the Great Woman herself – because it conveys 'I am the most qualified person in the world to be the next President' with nary a hint of hubris or off-putting ambition. Quite a rhetorical accomplishment. And it fits perfectly with the post-2008 Hillary persona – whip-smart as always, tough-as-nails for sure, incredibly accomplished, but garrulous and likeable, too. All of which adds up to electable – and formidably so.

Hillary will announce her intention to seek the Democratic Party's presidential nomination at some point over the next 12 months, soon after which other potential heavyweight contenders will rally behind her, among them Vice President Joe Biden and Andrew Cuomo, the gifted and ambitious governor of New York. A clear field is unlikely, however. Lesser figures – perhaps with a barrow to push, an absence of self-awareness, or both – will inevitably join the race, but the prospect of another Barack Obama raining on Hillary's parade seems remote. Also in her favour is that no opponent will dare attack her record and character in the way Obama did in 2008 because doing so will alienate the party's base and also diminish their odds of scoring second spot on Clinton's ticket. All in all, Hillary occupies the strongest position of any Democrat at this point in one of the most open presidential races in the party's history (even FDR faced stiff competition for the 1932 nomination, relying on some last minute deal-making).

When it comes to who will likely face Hillary in 2016, the conventional wisdom goes something like this: it will boil down to a contest between a ‘mainstream’ establishment figure capable of taking it to the Democrats in a general election, and a fringe-dwelling Tea Party extremist who will wow conservatives in the primaries but horrify everyone else, delivering Hillary a crushing landslide in November.

Popular New Jersey governor Chris Christie is widely expected to carry the former mantle, while the latter will be one of Kentucky senator and Libertarian poster-child, Rand Paul, Texas Tea Party firebrand Ted Cruz, Romney's 'veep' pick and budget hardliner Paul Ryan and the union-bashing Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker. Marco Rubio, the telegenic 42-year old Senator from Florida, is also well in the mix but he is taking a battering among his party's vote-rich xenophobic wing because of his support (albeit qualified) for reforming the country's beleaguered immigration system.

This analysis is half wrong – and I refer to the half that involves the electoral viability of a so-called 'establishment' candidate like Chris Christie. Yes, his tough-talking style and post-Hurricane Sandy heroics have turned Christie into a media superstar – and will propel him to easy re-election in New Jersey later this year – but he has close to zero chance of winning his party's nomination for president.

Today's Republican voter is more conservative than at any time since it nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964 ("Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" the Arizona senator told braying delegates that year, "and... moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!" – Lyndon Johnson trounced him by 25 points). There is a profound disconnect between party elites who understand that demography and common sense demand a shift to the centre and the Republican voters who will actually choose the next nominee. In the aftermath of Mitt Romney's defeat last year, 60 per cent of Republican voters told Pew researchers that the party needs to become more conservative, not less. They lost to Obama, in other words, not because young people, Hispanics, Asians, blacks and professional women abandoned them on an unprecedented scale, but because Mitt Romney was a left wing sell-out.

This is why the smart money's on Rand Paul, son of Ron, the perennial standard-bearer for the GOP's hitherto modest Libertarian wing. While father and son appear inseparable on ideology, the latter is a far more plausible contender. Radical enough to excite the activists (like his dad), but palatable to mainstream conservatives (unlike his dad), Rand Paul is tailor-made for the times. He is having a field day with the NSA revelations on constitutional grounds, an issue that ties more traditional 'national security' Republicans in knots. His anti-immigration stance is unequivocal, and he gleefully rejects even the most modest imaginable gun control measures. Red meat for red states.

According to a poll this week, Rand Paul is already leading the prospective 2016 GOP field in Michigan, a state that traditionally opts for moderates over conservatives in Republican primaries, even backing George Bush senior over Ronald Reagan in 1980 and John McCain over Bush the younger in 2000. The fact Rand Paul is even competitive in Michigan suggests he could be unbeatable elsewhere.

Phil Quin is a New York based consultant and freelance writer and former advisor to Gareth Evans and Steve Bracks. He can be found on twitter at @philquin


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