BY MICHAEL RICONDA
It is no secret that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on the short list for Democratic candidates to replace President Barack Obama. The way I have heard it put by others with an eye on 2016 makes it seem as if America might as well roll out the band and call it an inauguration rather than a proper election.
The prevailing argument is that it is merely “her time.” The internal politics of the Democratic Party are one matter, but to be fair, “her time” likely has as much to do with this particular period of American political history as any backroom deal to place Clinton in the White House.
At the same time, recent efforts by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kenntucky) have made it seem as if the more competitive pool of Republican candidates might spawn the party’s first serious libertarian presidential candidate. Paul has been working hard to maintain his ties to the old guard of the Republican Party, while gathering those across the political spectrum disappointed by Obama’s treatment of issues like foreign policy, immigration and NSA spying. He has extended that challenge to Clinton, as well.
While both of these individuals stand on shaky ground and the election is far from determined (even the most fatalistic of pundits has to admit it’s only 2014), Clinton is more adept at maintaining her balance and Paul will need to work hard to throw her off balance.
First, Clinton is clearly the only Democratic powerhouse in the primaries. In a recent CNN/ORC poll conducted in July, 67 percent of respondents responded they would be most likely to support Hillary if she ran. Trailing far behind were Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the progressive from Massachusetts who polled at 10 percent, and Vice President Joe Biden, who polled at 8 percent.
As if it was not one-sided enough, Warren has announced she has no plans to run in 2016 and Biden is almost certain to carry baggage from his eight years at Obama’s side. Other polls (almost all that include Clinton, in fact) show her as the dominant candidate. She is the star of the show, the best bet to keep the White House in Democratic hands in 2016.
To his credit, Paul seems to know he has his work cut out for him and is working hard to discredit Clinton. Playing off the public’s weariness with foreign conflicts, Paul recently blasted Clinton and suggested that if they were to go toe-to-toe in an election, the public would favor him.
“If you want to see a transformational election in our country, let the Democrats put forward a war hawk like Hillary Clinton, and you’ll see a transformation like you’ve never seen,” Paul said.
Paul is right and wrong in that statement. A Quinnipiac poll conducted in July found 63 percent of Americans oppose sending American ground troops back into Iraq, but 52 percent approved the use of airstrikes. A sizable 39 percent minority opposed airstrikes.
The execution of American journalist James Foley and the continued expansion and atrocities committed by Islamist terrorists, ISIS are not likely to change the prevailing notion that war is acceptable from a good safe distance. It looks as though Americans have lost their taste for sending young Americans to die in foreign wars, but maybe not for war in general. When Paul lobs accusations that hawks are completely out of favor, he is perhaps a bit too enthusiastic about his own non-interventionist policy, yet he is still tapping into deep, bipartisan discontent over long, frustrating conflicts in the Middle East.
Other public shows of bravado suggest Paul is diverging from his GOP base on social issues to undermine Clinton’s sturdy foundation of what you might call the “at least she’s not a Republican” vote. Surprisingly enough, one of his main targets is a demographic critical for Democratic control but oft ignored by the party establishment: African-Americans.
Paul recently partnered with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J,) on the REDEEM Act, which would expunge records for nonviolent juvenile offenders, limit the use of solitary confinement on juveniles and establish a petitioning process for nonviolent offenders to have their records sealed. In addition, Paul has pursued legislation to restore voting rights for nonviolent felons in national elections. All of these are major issues in large parts of the black community and all would have to be pursued in a bipartisan fashion, further enhancing Paul’s appeal to centrists and political independents.
On Ferguson, Paul is similarly unabashed as a libertarian where Clinton is silent as a liberal. In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Paul linked the crisis to the incarceration of African Americans and suggested the shooting might have been racial, a jaw-dropping statement coming from a Republican presidential candidate.
“Let’s say none of this has to do with race. It might not. But if you’re African American and you live in Ferguson, the belief is you see people in prison and they’re mostly black and brown and it is racial, even if the thoughts that were going on at that time had nothing to do with race,” Paul said.
Meanwhile, Clinton deliberately ignored reporters’ requests for commentary on the same matter last week. As a party, the Democrats have been sheepish about throwing their support behind anybody or anything in Ferguson. They might believe that to be good politics, but when a Republican is speaking louder than Democrats on traditionally liberal issues, it could communicate weakness on the part of a party too self-serving to address the needs of even its strongest supporters.
Still, all of this is moot until Paul wins the Republican battle royale, a tall order for a man who must still fight to get his name out to the general public and for one playing to the “left” on many social issues. That “getting to know you” phase of his campaign might be Paul’s time to shine, but as we all know from 2012, even one slip up or the revelation of a dirty secret could sound a death knell for even the most impressive primary candidate.
Following the “Bridgegate” scandal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s partial fall from grace, polls have been competitive for Republicans, but not decisive for any one of them. The most recent one, published by McClatchy-Marist, shows Paul scraping together only 7 percent with Christie and Jeb Bush tied in first at 13 percent win. A more conservative candidate who also can claim some libertarian leanings, Ted Cruz, comes in with 10 percent, while Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and Rick Perry draw 9, 9 and 7 percent respectively.
Prior Fox and CNN polls showed Paul polling stronger than the McClatchy/Marist poll. Meanwhile, Clinton continues to trump virtually every Republican candidate thrown at her in the polls.
The greatest obstacle to Paul’s success might be his own party’s conservative base. On a national level, most Republicans are still hesitant to support anybody with too many libertarian leanings and however the party decides to address the growing influence of libertarians in its midst in the future, right now they will not alienate the still influential social conservatives and foreign policy hawks.
That is just the way it is right now, so Paul will have to strike a balance if he hopes to survive long enough to face Hillary.
A lot can happen during the primaries. Clinton was a contender in 2008, but she fell out of favor largely because of the same tired old party line rhetoric that failed to distinguish her as anything but a political beast. If Paul manages to impress the Republicans enough to face her, he would be wise to prod at that same Achilles’ heel.
Paul might even be able to do that without alienating his own party. Of all people, he should know swaying your opponent’s supporters can be a dangerous game of give-and-take.