This election season I’ve found myself unable to escape the feeling of deja vu. Specifically, it feels as if we’ve gone back in time eight years, when Barack Obama was trying to beat John McCain in the race for the White House.
“[W]e all agree that at this defining moment in our history, a moment when we are facing two wars, an economy in turmoil, a planet in peril, a dream that feels like it’s slipping away for too many Americans, we can’t afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush’s third term,” Obama told a crowd in May of 2008.
It wouldn’t take changing many words to make that a near-perfect stump speech staple for any Republican candidate. We may not be engaged in formal wars, but our presence and interests in the Middle East has never been more contentious. The economy remains in turmoil nearly a decade after the recession hit. The planet is in peril, though the more immediate threat appears to be the existential threat known as ISIS. And the vibrancy of the American Dream continues to fade, the result of stagnant wages and a poor job market for young adults.
Is it any wonder then that Hillary Clinton now faces the same accusation that John McCain did eight years ago: That she represents their predecessors third term?
“I think she is beatable because the record is not very good,” Rep. Paul Ryan said recently. “I don’t think people are going to want to have an Obama third term and no matter how she tries to shake that label, she won’t be able to.”
John Dickerson, writing for Slate, agrees with Ryan’s assessment:
Voters want a “remedy, not [a] replica” in the next candidate, even when the incumbent leaving office is well-liked. [David Axelrod] says this rule–which he learned most directly in the 1989 race for the mayor of Cleveland where Michael White, the Democrat, followed the popular incumbent Republican George Voinovich–applies to presidential campaigns, too. He wrote to Sen. Obama in 2008: “When incumbents step down, voters rarely opt for a replica of what they have, even when that outgoing leader is popular. They almost always choose change over the status quo.” This is a different formulation of what President Obama was talking about recently when he said voters wanted “that new car smell.” Clinton is associated with the status quo even more because she has the Obama years and the Clinton years attached to her.
Given this view, simple distinctions between Obama and Clinton on policy or positioning won’t be enough to break the third-term lock. It will be very hard for Clinton to offer herself as a remedy because there is nothing that makes her so constitutionally different from Obama that voters will notice.
That’s not to say that Clinton didn’t try to differentiate herself from the outgoing president. Throughout the summer and fall she attempted to put as much distance between herself and Obama as possible on as many issues as was practicable. She criticized his approach to attacking the Islamic State, she broke with the Obama Administration in support of the Trans Pacific Partnership, she said she would be more aggressive in her use of executive power, and took a clear stand against the Keystone XL pipeline.
“I am not running for my husband’s third term or President Obama’s third term,” Clinton told voters in Davenport, Iowa, this fall. “I’m running for my first term.”
It didn’t work. As Dickerson predicted, Clinton couldn’t reach escape velocity such that she could escape President Obama’s orbit. So what did she do? She pulled a 180 degree turn and began publicly supporting the president and defending his policies, at least in places like South Carolina, where she is cynically attempting to court the black vote. The Washington Post’s Peter Stevenson breaks down the maneuver:
At the Jan. 17 Democratic debate in Charleston, S.C., Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton went out of her way to stress her ties to President Obama.
At times during Sunday’s Democratic debate in Charleston, S.C., Hillary Clinton’s pitch to voters seemed simple: Elect me and get four more years of President Obama’s policies.
At the same time, she sought to cast Bernie Sanders as anti-Obama, focused on trying to undo the president’s signature health-care law and opposing Obama in other ways.
In a sense, it was “revolution” versus “continuation.” . . .
Clinton had to do something to set herself apart from Sanders in this debate. Sanders’s surging poll numbers in both Iowa and New Hampshire had the Clinton campaign worried this week. Will casting Sanders as the anti-Obama stop that surge? It’s what Clinton HQ is banking on.
As “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd said after the debate, “Sometimes we talk about people wrapping themselves in the flag. Hillary Clinton was wrapping herself in President Obama tonight.”
Will the ploy be enough to win the primary? Maybe. Does it hurt her chances in the general election in which voters “rarely opt for a replica? Absolutely.