When Democrats worry about Hillary Clinton's electability, they focus on her reenergizing a depressed Republican base while demoralizing core Democratic activists, particularly those outraged about the war, and thus maybe lose the election. But there's a further danger if Hillary's nominated—that she will win but then split the Democratic Party.
We forget that this happened with her husband Bill, because compared to Bush, he's looking awfully good. Much of Hillary's support may be nostalgia for when America's president seemed to engage reality instead of disdaining it. But remember that over the course of Clinton's presidency, the Democrats lost 6 Senate seats, 46 Congressional seats, and 9 governorships. This political bleeding began when Monica Lewinsky was still an Oregon college senior. Given Hillary's protracted support of the Iraq war, her embrace of neoconservative rhetoric on Iran, and her coziness with powerful corporate interests, she could create a similar backlash once in office, dividing and depressing the Democratic base and reversing the party's newfound momentum.
Think about 1994. Pundits credited major Republican victories to angry white men, Hillary's failed healthcare plan, and Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America." But the defeat was equally rooted in a massive withdrawal of volunteer support among Democratic activists who felt politically betrayed. Nothing fostered this sense more than Bill Clinton's going to the mat to push the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Angered by a sense that he was subordinating all other priorities to corporate profits, and by his cavalier attitude toward the hollowing out of America's industrial base, labor, environmental and social-justice activists nationwide withdrew their energy from Democratic campaigns. This helped swing the election, much as the continued extension of these policies (particularly around dropping trade barriers with China) led just enough Democratic leaning voters in 2000 to help elect George Bush by staying home or voting for Ralph Nader.
But by 1994 grass-roots Democratic campaigners mostly stayed home, disgruntled. In Washington State, there were barely enough people to distribute literature and make phone calls in Seattle's most liberal neighborhoods, let alone in swing suburban districts. Republicans won seven of our nine congressional races, and reelected a Senator known for baiting environmentalists.
The same was true nationwide. I spent that campaign season traveling to promote a book on campus activism, staying with friends long involved with progressive causes. Everywhere I went, critical races would go to the Republicans by the narrowest of margins. Yet my friends and their friends seemed strangely detached, so disgusted with Democratic politics that they no longer wanted anything to do with it. Surveys found that had voters who stayed home voted, they would have reversed the election outcome. Even a modest volunteer effort might have prevented the Republican sweep.
But even if she does, she is then strongly likely to fracture the party with her stands. She talks of staying in Iraq for counterterrorism operations, which could easily become indistinguishable from the present war. She backed the recent Kyl-Lieberman vote on Iran that Senator James Webb called "Cheney's fondest pipe dream." She supported at least one regressive version of the bankruptcy bill and the extension of Bush's tax cuts on capital gains and dividends. If her contributors are any guide, like those she courted in a $1,000-a-plate dinner for homeland security contractors, she's likely to cave to corporate interests so much in her economic policies that those increasingly squeezed by America's growing divides will backlash in ways that they're long been primed to by Republican rhetoric about "liberal elitists." And if Democrats do then begin to challenge her, the relative unity created by the Bush polities will quickly erode.
Because the Republican candidates would bring us more of the same ghastly policies we've seen from Bush and Cheney, I'd vote for Hillary if she became the nominee. But I'd do so with a very heavy heart, and a recognition that we'll have to push her to do the right thing on issue after issue, and won't always prevail. We still have a chance to select strong alternatives like Edwards (who I'm supporting) or Obama. And with Republican polling numbers in the toilet, this election gives Democrats an opportunity to seriously shift our national course that we may not have again for years. It would be a tragedy if they settled for the candidate most likely to shatter the momentum of this shift when it's barely begun..