At the outset of the 1996 contest for the Republican presidential nomination, then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole emerged as the early frontrunner. After serving at the GOP vice-presidential nominee in 1976 and vying unsuccessfully for the nomination in 1980 and ’88, it was “his turn.” The Dole juggernaut seemed unstoppable until he refused a check from Log Cabin.
He recovered from that, but, as the first caucuses and primaries approached, seemed to be slowly losing momentum. People began to wonder if the only reason for backing him was the seeming inevitability of his nomination. He only eked out a narrow victory in the Iowa caucuses (besting Pat Buchanan by 3%), a contest he had won handily eight years previously. After losing New Hampshire to that egotistical demagogue, he went on to win the Republican nomination, but, never really finding a theme to animate his campaign, lost to incumbent Bill Clinton that fall.
As we see Clinton’s wife locked in a tight three-way contest in Iowa as her lead began to evaporate in New Hampshire, I’m wondering if Democrats are having the same kind of frontrunner’s remorse that Republicans had for Bob Dole nearly twelve years ago.
Both were seen as the candidates of their respective party’s establishment. Both didn’t seem to stand for anything, but their own ambition for the White House. Both are strong political partisans. Hillary, to be sure, has an ideological streak which Dole lacks.
All that said, the sudden tightening of the Democratic race this year parallels that of the GOP in 1996. Hillary, like Dole, could survive a narrow win in Iowa and a defeat in New Hampshire (or, her case, vice versa) and go on to win the nomination. Should she do so, she would be more strongly situated than was Dole in 1996, running as he was against an incumbent president during a time of peace and prosperity.
Yet, in having to fight for something which she assumed to be hers by right, she has only reinforced public perceptions of her own ruthlessness. As her campaign has attacked her opponents, she has resorted to broad statements and banalties in defending her candidacy, making, in one interview, five references to the Des Moines Register‘s endorsement of her White House bid, rather than answering the question.
That empty rhetoric, in many ways, echoes Dole’s 1996 campaign. Like the GOP nominee that year, Hillary seems to be running for the White House largely because she thinks she’s entitled to the job. She ust knows she’ll do a good job because she’s Hillary Clinton and anyway, someone else says so, so why answer the question.
At least Bob Dole has a good sense of humor and a natural laugh. But, I don’t think he’d look good in a pants suit. And I dare say his classy wife would have better sense than to wear one.
UPDATE: Just read this from Dick Morris, “Hillary has a carefully cultivated impression of invincibility that serves as one of her principal attractions to Democratic primary voters.” He notes that, “Hillary has a real potential for a comeback.” Whereas Buchanan’s extremism made him easier for Dole to defeat when it became a two-man race, Morris believes Obama’s inexperience could play against him once the spotlight focuses on him should the Illinois Senator prevail “in the first few primaries.” Read the whole thing!